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Posted at 12:12 PM ET, 12/ 9/2010

The case for announcing for president early

By Chris Cillizza

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty are all weighing 2012 presidential bids. AP photos

Much has been written of late about the fact that the 2012 Republican presidential fight is off to a slow start.

What we find more amazing than the fact that frontrunning candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin aren't as active as their predecessors have been is that not a single lesser known candidate has taken advantage of the current presidential news vacuum to get into the contest.

"For anyone not Romney or Palin, it is an advantage to start early," acknowledged an adviser to one of the GOP candidates considering but not yet in the race. "Not only do you need the early exposure to secure political real estate before someone else does, but the best staff and consultants will go quickly."

That's especially true in a field like this one, which is expected to be large and -- with apologies to Romney and Palin -- without a clearly defined frontrunner in the way past contests have had.

The mass of candidates all grouped somewhere between zero and 25 percent on hypothetical ballot tests suggests that an early entrant could benefit from the media attention -- and resulting attention from activists in early states and big-dollar donors -- that would go with being the first in the pool.

And yet, the likes of Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- among MANY others -- remain on the sidelines.

What gives?

History may be the largest deterrent to an earlier announcement.

Since 1972, only two candidates -- George McGovern in 1972 and Al Gore in 2000 -- have both been the first candidate in and the last man standing in a presidential nominating fight. (That excludes races that feature a sitting president seeking reelection.)

More often, the first candidate into the race is the first candidate out of the race.

In 1984, California Sen. Alan Cranston (D) got into the race in February of 1983 and was out of the running roughly a year later.

In 1996, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (R) announced for president in late January 1995 and was gone from the contest in a year's time.

In 2008, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) was a real early bird -- declaring his plan to run for president on Nov. 9, 2006.

By February 2007 -- still almost a year before any voters actually voted -- Vilsack was out of the running, citing an inability to compete with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the fundraising front.

"Getting in early is a double-edged sword," said Craig Varoga, who managed Vilsack's race. He noted that an early announcement is a "great way to grab attention if you're not a frontrunner, and that helps open doors to some potential funders" but added that "it also means the campaign could spend all its early money before a single vote is cast."

While that history can be daunting, it may ultimately be misleading about the relative value of announcing early.

Why? Because the candidates to whom getting into the race early matters tend not to be frontrunners but rather semi-long shots who needs a LOT of things to go right for them to wind up as their party's nominee. Put another way: longshots need to make their own luck and picking an early announcement is a potent way to do that.

Aside from the crush of media attention that such an announcement would draw -- attention that would almost certainly be positive in nature -- there are also other practical benefits, most notably the ability to begin actively raising money for a bid.

"To me, it is a simple equation: You must have $35 million cash-on-hand by Dec 31, 2011," explained a strategist to another yet-to-announce 2012 candidate. "Is it easier to raise that money in 12 months or 9 months or even fewer months?"

Remember that raising money for a presidential race is bound by federal donation limits, meaning that every candidate will need to collect money in -- roughly -- $2,000 chunks. And, it takes a lot of $2,000 donations to add up to $35 million (or anywhere close to that number.)

Add to that equation Romney's vast personal wealth and Palin's demonstrated ability to raise money from small dollar donors with almost no effort and the importance of getting into the money chase sooner rather than later is even more acute.

Then there is the historic desire of the people of Iowa and New Hampshire to be relentlessly courted -- some might use another word -- by any and every candidate who wants their vote.

Getting into the race early allows a candidate to do just that and to make the stronger possible pitch to undecided voters: I am in the race to win and I am asking for your vote. When contrasted with other candidates who remain unannounced, it's possible that pitch would have more power.

Ditto for donors. If you are not the frontrunner -- or one of them -- raising big money will already be a difficult proposition. (Money follows conventional wisdom at least at the start.)

That task is made doubly difficult if you are not already in the race. Asking a donor to place a big bet on a longshot who still isn't even in the running is a fool's errand. It's far easier to go to a donor as an announced candidate and explain why and how you can win -- even if that victory proposal is far from a sure thing.

The final argument for an early announcement is the power of momentum. In a field as undefined as this one, a candidate who can use an early start to build buzz has a reasonable chance of butting their way into the top tier -- particularly if someone like Palin or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decides against the race.

Presidential races are notoriously momentum-prone -- Howard Dean in 2003, Huckabee in Iowa in 2008 etc. -- and there's no reason to think that a candidate who gets into the race in the near future couldn't capitalize on that phenomenon this time around.

And yet, there is no sign of movement toward the race yet.

Both Barbour and Daniels are likely to wait until the spring to make a final call. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said he will decide either in late February or early March. Pawlenty may be the first one into the race but almost certainly won't be officially announced until some time in the new year.

Waiting in politics is rarely rewarded. (Just ask President Mario Cuomo. Er....) And rolling the dice with an early announcement for president is almost a justifiable strategy for anyone not already blessed with frontrunner status -- particularly in a race as wide-open as this one.

Will anyone jump at the opportunity? Or will it pass them by?

By Chris Cillizza  | December 9, 2010; 12:12 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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