The race for the White House in 2024 is on. So said incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden in October 2022 he plans to seek a second term, even if he stopped making an official announcement. But – in what is is expected to be a crowded Republican field – only a few candidates had announced their bid by the end of March 2023.
Former President Donald Trump, the last Republican to hold the office and party banner bearer, said in November 2022 that he will seek the party’s nomination. And Republican Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, announced in February 2023 that she is running.
More presidential candidates are likely to enter the race in the coming weeks and months. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example expect to jump in after his state’s legislative session has ended in May. And South Carolina Senator Tim Scott appears ready to announce soon.
Each candidate, along with their campaigns, makes decisions about the right time to enter the race. But how do they decide?
The Conversation asked Rob Mellen Jr., a political scientist who studies the presidency, to explain five things presidential candidates consider before running for the highest office in the country.
1. Sitting fitness
The first thing potential presidential candidates consider is whether the incumbent president or, for the non-incumbent party, the flag bearer, is eligible to run for office.
Candidates who oppose incumbents — and popular former chairmen of the same party — face almost insurmountable obstacles, largely due to the popularity of incumbents. It offers officeholders seeking re-election a significant advantage. For example, sitting presidents between 1952 and 2000 enjoyed a bonus of 6 percentage points at the popular vote.
Usually, incumbents have advantages because of their track record, brand awareness – which influences a candidate’s voter base and financial backing – and their ability to send federal money to the geographies that support them.
While the incumbent’s advantages typically make would-be challengers think twice before running for president, there have been exceptions. In 1980, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. However, Kennedy failed and his bid divided the Democratic Party.
Republican Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California, beat Carter in the general election and became the country’s 40th president.
2. The number of possible opponents
Potential candidates also consider the number of opponents they will be up against. A crowded field with numerous candidates makes it difficult for more than three or four candidates to gain traction in the first primaries, which are usually held in January and February of the election year.
If they are not the incumbent, a party standard-bearer, or someone with otherwise significant name recognition, candidates with many opponents typically find it difficult to get their message across, especially when competing against political stars.
During the 2016 Republican campaign, for example 17 candidates entered the race, but only Trump and Senator Ted Cruz stood out. Because of Trump’s celebrity status — earned through years of marketing himself as a billionaire and through reality TV fame — Trump got a lot media attention. Its bombastic personality also played well with a segment of the Republican base. He attracted a lot of media attention that other candidates could not match. And Cruz got a grip on it finish first in the Iowa caucusesallowing him to be competitive in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primary that followed.
3. Likely voters
Candidates have a few ways to identify their likely voters. They can visit early match states and test their messages, just like Trump, DeSantisHayley and Scott have done in Iowa and South Carolina. Or they can make speeches at large rallies of party loyalists, such as the annual one Conservative Political Action Conference.
Conduct surveys is another way for candidates to find out how broad or narrow their base of support is.
4. Campaign Financing
Most presidential candidates also have to figure out how to fund what could turn into a lengthy bid for the party nomination. The main question they have to answer for themselves is: where does the money come from for continued primary battles?
Connect with high net worth lenders who can can contribute large amounts to a super pack supporting the candidate can be the key to a candidate’s stamina.
Sometimes dedicated big donors allow candidates to stay in the race much longer than expected, as does the backing of wealthy supporters and a super PAC longtime former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s failed presidential election bid in 2012.
But, as Gingrich’s run proved, with the backing of a super PAC prohibited by law from coordinating efforts with candidates and their campaigns does not guarantee success.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign was supported by the super PAC Right to Rise with a budget of over $100 million. But his run for president ended in disappointment fourth in South Carolina primary.
Whether or not potential candidates have access to significant financial aid will affect their decision to enter the race. It is extremely expensive to run a competitive campaign due to costs associated with staffing, travel, advertising and more. But candidates who do well in the early games tend to raise more money and survive longer in the primary process.
5. The mood of the electorate
The vote of the electorate also influences potential candidates’ decisions to run for office. If the incumbent president is very popular—a rarity in modern American politics—that may deter some would-be challengers.
But the public can be fickle. An incumbent party can be popular a year before the general election, just like George HW Bush was in early 1991, only to see their popularity fade the following year. Shrub lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election.
The political fate of unpopular incumbents may also shift. 1983, Reagan’s preference ratings were very weakbut he rebounded in 1984, defeating Democratic nominee and former Vice President Walter Mondale in a landslide 49-state victory.
During presidential elections where there is no incumbent president, such as in 2008 and 2016, potential candidate calculations do not need to account for the incumbent’s popularity. In 2016, both Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent seeking the Democratic nomination, were able to tap into an electorate seeking change by addressing supporters with populist messages.
Trump’s attempt successfully secured the Republican nominationwhile Sanders’ effort came up short as the Democratic party favored its first female candidateformer Senator Hillary Clinton.
From determining whether an incumbent president is vulnerable to challenge from within the party to the likelihood of defeating an incumbent president from the opposing party, there is a significant amount of strategic planning involved in winning the presidency. And the planning begins long before the candidates announce their intention to run.