Nikki Haley became former President Donald Trump's first major competitor in the 2024 presidential election race as Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and others sit back and wait. While all are expected to run, their contrasting approaches raise an important question: How and when is it best to enter a presidential race? As usual, history provides some helpful answers. One of the most famous early entry stories is that of Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) in 1968. The sitting president was Lyndon Johnson, who was reeling from unrest regarding the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, most observers thought Johnson was still too powerful within the Democratic superstructure to be at risk from any meaningful challenger. Despite this sentiment, McCarthy entered the race on Nov. 30, 1967, and had a surprisingly strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primaries, earning 42% of the vote, compared to Johnson's 48%.
McCarthy's achievement encouraged Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, another opponent of the Vietnam War, to join the race. Kennedy's entry not only irked the McCarthy camp but increasingly exposed Johnson's electoral vulnerabilities. Although the president dropped out of the race at the end of March, less than two weeks after Kennedy stepped in, many historians believe that Kennedy was on a trajectory to win the 1968 Democratic nomination. Unfortunately, Palestinian activist Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Kennedy on the night of the California primary, in June of 1968. Hubert Humphrey, who, as Johnson's vice president, would not have challenged Johnson had he stayed in the race, won the Democratic nomination but lost a squeaker of an election to Richard Nixon.
Nixon himself had entered the open primary on the Republican side somewhat late, in February 1968. Nixon's entry came five months after onetime front-runner George Romney's summer comment that he had been "brainwashed" on a trip to Vietnam, a slip-up that doomed his prospects for the race. Vietnam was obviously a key factor in the general election on the Democratic side as well. Humphrey was burdened by Johnson's Vietnam policy. Had the war-critic Kennedy lived, he might have been able to win a race that Humphrey could not.
Another early entrant to a presidential race was Jimmy Carter. The former governor of Georgia quietly entered the 1976 presidential race almost two years in advance, on Dec. 12, 1974. According to one famous story, when Carter told his mother, Lillian, that he planned to run for president, she replied, "President of what?" Still, Carter made his presence known in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which helped him to secure the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency. While there are examples highlighting the benefits of both early and late entries, dithering is never a good option. In the race for the 1992 Democratic nomination, many top-name, would-be serious contenders stayed back, wary of challenging the seemingly unbeatable George H.W. Bush. After America's victory in the first Gulf War, Bush had stratospherically high approval ratings — ratings unheard of for 21st century presidents. Instead of the top names, seven lesser-known Democrats, collectively known as the Seven Dwarfs, fought for the Democratic crown. Bill Clinton was emerging as the front-runner from this group, but he was also dogged by rumors of his infidelities during his time as governor of Arkansas. Waiting in the wings was Mario Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York and a national powerhouse, who had given a very strong speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. Cuomo, however, couldn't make up his mind. Cuomo reportedly had a campaign plane fueled and ready to fly to New Hampshire to enter the race but ultimately did not decide, which itself is a decision. This indecision earned Cuomo the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson." Clinton went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
So how much, if at all, does the timing matter? Democratic campaign guru Howard Wolfson believes that "you have to move early because the process starts early, and if you are not announcing in the early time, you are going to lose out." Wolfson has a point: Early entrants can gain points by campaigning hard in the early primary states, honing their messages, and being vetted early by the media. This is still a viable strategy in the Republican Party, where Iowa and New Hampshire have their first-to-go positions. The Democrats have complicated this by trying to push Iowa and New Hampshire back in favor of larger, more populous states where Joe Biden won't have to do the person-to-person retail campaigning that he doesn't seem to relish anymore.
Another advantage to the early strategy is scaring off competitors, especially if one catches fire rhetorically or in the polls. Name recognition and media attention are also important, and lesser-known candidates can build them on the campaign trail — an approach that helps in polls, fundraising, and attracting staff. An early entrant can also shape the narrative of a campaign by highlighting issues that might not have been top of mind previously. Pat Buchanan did this with trade in 1992 and shocked the political world by garnering 38% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary that year. He did not win that primary, nor did he unseat Bush, but he did reveal Bush's weakness, which encouraged Ross Perot to enter, leave, and reenter the race as a third-party candidate focused on trade. Perot did not win, of course, but his 19% of the vote in November complicated matters for Bush, who lost the race to Bill Clinton.
Even if one does not enter early, it is necessary to "plan early," according to Stephen J. Wayne, author of The Road to the White House 2020. As Wayne wrote, early planning is essential because "creating an organization, devising a strategy, and raising the amount of money necessary to conduct a broad-based campaign all takes time." Yet there are advantages to declaring late as well. Early polls are generally not determinative and may not faze a determined and well-funded challenger from getting into the race. Early entrants have a target on their backs, while later entrants can cite a dedication to his or her current job to avoid heightened media scrutiny, whether in relation to qualifications or policy-based questions. Another challenge comes from the rules regarding Federal Election Commission filings. After declaring for president, candidates must designate a principal campaign committee and file contribution-related statements to the FEC, a task some may not want to face earlier than they have to. For example, Trump reportedly did not like the strictures imposed on him in 2016, and some thought that might keep him from declaring. In 2024, however, the need for him to drive away competitors seems to have been the more compelling argument in his extremely early entry in the race.
Late entrants also shorten their time in the race, which could help avoid staff burnout and reduce the window for relentless exposure that could lead to missteps. In addition, coming in late could shake up a static or moribund field by bringing in a fresh face or new perspective. Finally, a late entrant can assess the existing candidates and tailor a strategy to address the contours of the race as it has already developed, something that is nearly impossible to do once you are already in the race. Fred Thompson unsuccessfully tried this in 2008, as did Rick Perry in 2012 and Mike Bloomberg in 2020. None of them won, but they all got a lot of media attention for their efforts.
Top campaign officials and thinkers are constantly looking at strategies to see what will work in the current moment. Michael Cohen, author of Modern Political Campaigns, told me that "the old theory about getting in early no longer holds as most potential candidates for president of the United States have already spent a lot of time building their national profiles online and offline. Also, campaigns can raise money very quickly online, so there is little advantage to doing a lot of donor handling — they want to see your ability to raise money before they'll meet with you." Still, Cohen said that some candidates are forced by their relative obscurity to get in early: "For potential candidates who do not have a strong national profile, and little hope of winning the nomination, the only shot is to decamp to Iowa or New Hampshire if you're a Republican and see if you can catch fire."
Of course, every race is different, and while history is always instructive, it is not determinative.
But one thing is clear: There are no hard and fast rules. "It depends on your station," according to CNN senior political commentator and GOP campaign veteran Scott Jennings. "If you currently hold a position or platform that allows for you to get attention and earned media (i.e. DeSantis or Biden), you can afford to wait. If you are just bored and retired, you probably need the vehicle to get some attention early." As Jennings knows, that uncertainty can weigh on candidates. Consultants and pollsters can suggest strategies, but for presidential aspirants, "they'll never know unless they launch a campaign."