In politics, like comedy, timing is everything. Rush the punchline, spoil the joke. Bait an audience too long, and risk losing their attention.
The dozens of Democrats considering running for president in 2020 are pondering how, and when, to formally declare their candidacies, a seminal event that allows a campaign a moment of national media attention and buzz among donors, activists and volunteers crucial to long-term success.
Interviews with half a dozen strategists advising potential candidates say the decision about how and when to launch a campaign has evolved rapidly in a changing media and political environment. And different types of candidates must use the announcement — their one moment when they alone control the message — in their own best interests.
Only one Democrat, Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Lobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis MORE (Md.), has formally entered the race. But once the polls close on November’s midterm elections, the announcements are likely to come quickly.
“There will be a starting gun on the race as soon as this election is over,” an adviser to a likely 2020 candidate predicted.
Half a century ago, candidates like Robert Kennedy waited until primaries were already underway to enter the race.
Rules changes meant to take the nominating process out of smoke-filled rooms at conventions mean candidates now must compete in every contest.
Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE was able to wait until October 1991, just months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, to enter the race. But now, the demands of fundraising and building a national organization mean candidates enter much earlier.
Howard Dean, the politically unknown former governor of tiny Vermont, formed an exploratory committee well before the 2002 midterm elections and slowly built his opposition to the war in Iraq into an insurgent campaign that nearly captured the Democratic nomination.
John KerryJohn Kerry Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' 9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction MORE announced his own exploratory committee in an appearance on "Meet The Press" in December 2002, shortly after the midterms, and still more than a year before the first caucuses were held.
Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE hinted he was considering a run on the same show just weeks before the 2006 midterms, then formally declared his candidacy in February 2007. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE announced her two runs in videos posted online and sent to supporters, in January 2007 and in April 2015.
Some potential contenders are already enjoying the luxury of a national spotlight.
The fight over President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s Supreme Court nominee will put Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Seven takeaways from California's recall election Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate MORE (D-Minn.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE (D-Calif.) in focus as they question Judge Brett Kavanaugh when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.) has emerged as a zealous interrogator of witnesses appearing before committees on which he sits.
And Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE (I-Vt.) attract media attention at will.
Others outside of Washington will have to work harder to raise their profiles. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has drawn far more attention than the average big-city mayor.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) runs the Democratic Governors Association, which puts him in touch with big party donors. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) on Saturday will become chairman of the National Governors Association, a perch from which other governors have launched presidential bids.
Several strategists advising candidates who do not hold federal office said their bosses will have to set up some type of federal campaign account, like an exploratory committee, in order to pay for the beginnings of a campaign.
Political action committees can pay for travel or contribute to candidates in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but those outsiders do not have the luxury of a federal campaign account — like a senator or a member of Congress would have — to pay for staff, polling and the trappings of a more formal campaign.
Advisers to most major candidates say they will wait until after the midterm elections, so as not to appear to place their personal interests ahead of the party’s interests at a moment when they have a shot at reclaiming control of Congress.
“You want to not look like you’re doing it until you’re ready to say you’re doing it,” said one strategist advising a prominent potential candidate, who asked for anonymity because his boss had not made a final decision about running.
Candidates lay significant groundwork before they actually enter the race, hiring staff, lining up donors and traveling to early nominating states.
“Most candidates then and now are running way before they announce that they’re running,” said Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s campaign in 2004. “The candidates that make the big mistake are the ones that say I’m not going to start running until I decide I’m running. Much better to start running until I decide I’m not.”
The announcement itself, though, represents a major moment for a campaign, one of the few times when a candidate is completely in control of the story. It is also the most opportune time for a candidate to build the most valuable tool in his or her arsenal: an email list that can be mined for donations and volunteers.
“Everyone is going to seize that moment through content they control in a way that helps them build their list,” said David Wade, a longtime adviser to Kerry.
Some candidates have used their more formal announcement speeches to deliver a message they hope sets the narrative for the campaign ahead. Obama’s announcement in 2007, on the steps of the Illinois state capital in Springfield, attracted a large crowd despite the frigid weather, showcasing his grass-roots support.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMilley says calls to China were 'perfectly within the duties' of his job Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE (R-Fla.) announced his 2016 bid at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, intending to show his roots as the son of Cuban immigrants.
This year, candidates are much more likely to make their case on social media, in carefully crafted videos aimed at going viral.
“Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, people waited, and an announcement itself was a unique opportunity for media attention. And that’s just completely been turned on its head, between social media, content that you can control,” Wade said. “The whole notion of a big formal ceremony is effectively gone.”
Candidates are likely to use the midterm elections both to campaign for fellow Democrats, to show activists they are helping the party and to help spin the election outcome in their own best interests.
A wave of Democratic wins could embolden progressives who would see those results as a ratification of a liberal pushback against President Trump.
A narrower win might provide a platform for a more centrist candidate who can pitch their appeal to rural or moderate voters in key Midwestern states the party lost in 2016.
“Are we running form a position of strength or weakness? And who do we most need to win over?” a third adviser to a potential candidate asked. “We’re all waiting for two things to happen: One, the midterms. Two, the Mueller investigation to get some White House scalps.”
The demands of a modern campaign, with months on the trail and countless hours on the phone with donors and activists, are likely to mean a wave of announcements in the two months between the midterms and the holidays.
“The earlier you go, the better. The longer you wait, it could be very risky. You might never get off the ground,” Trippi said.