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Indicators The pre-campaign period comprises the two year span from the last presidential election to the mid-term congressional elections.  In general, one can discern two groups of presidential prospects: the active pre-candidates and the coy and noncommittal

The 2000 campaign essentially began on November 6, 1996, the day after President Clinton was re-elected.  As 1997 progressed, a number of presidential hopefuls began building networks, courting activists, and testing messages.  About two dozen prominent individuals were mentioned in media speculation as possible 2000 presidential candidates, including at least 20 Republicans and five or six Democrats.  By November 1998, there were no formally declared major candidates, although two prospects had established exploratory committees.  

Active Pre-Candidates 
A handful of presidential prospects have been actively engaging in campaign-like pursuits and, when asked, will admit to "seriously thinking about it" or "testing the waters."  These active pre-candidates are laying the groundwork for probable campaigns, through such measures as: 

  • set up a leadership political action committee to fund travel and support candidates (through fundraising events, joint appearances, direct contributions and endorsements)...note: other vehicles are possible, for example, an issue advocacy group or an exploratory committee;
  • find reasons to regularly visit the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire;
  • visit other key states in the nominating process;
  • make the rounds at state party conventions and gatherings;
  • speak to key constituency groups aligned with the party (for example, social conservatives, organized labor...);
  • position themselves on key issues so as to appeal to core constituencies.
Coy and Noncommittal 
A second group of pre-candidates are more noncommittal, stating that they want to "keep the door open" or are "too busy to think about it now." Some of these individuals are genuinely undecided about a run, wanting to see the shape of the political landscape after the midterm elections. Thus if Democrats had regained control of the House in November 1998 or if Republicans had dramatically increased their majority, some hopefuls might have been either encouraged or dissuaded. Likewise, for potential presidential candidates who faced re-election in 1998, it would not have been prudent to start chasing a presidential dream and put their current positions at risk.  Other prospects may be considering a run but not want to get in "campaign mode" two or three years out from an election.  Some on the speculation list probably do not even have presidential ambitions, but may enjoy and encourage the talk because it bolsters marketability and media coverage. Finally, there is also a B-list.  A number of officials and others are engaged in early jockeying to be considered for the vice-presidential nod. 

Reaching a Decision 
By late 1998 or January 1999 a decision on a presidential run becomes imperative. Stan Huckaby, a Republican financial consultant, projects that to win the GOP nomination in 2000, a candidate must raise between $15 and 20 million in 1999. He suggests that committees start the planning process to raise this sum between June and October 1998. Money is equally important on the Democratic side. In addition to money, if a hopeful waits too long, the top campaign talent will be locked up by other camps. 

Each potential candidate needs to determine if he, or she, has the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win, or at least shape the debate. The pre-campaign period provides a time to make that determination. Aside from a few thousand party activists and pundits around the country are who are paying close attention, most Americans, facing more immediate concerns, pay little heed during the pre-campaign period. Likewise, while news organizations may occasionally run stories that have a 2000 presidential campaign angle or a paragraph here and there on presidential race implications or even just use of the "likely presidential candidate" label, the glare of the media spotlight is elsewhere. 

The lack of attention to a race that is still one or two years away is probably a healthy sign. At such an early stage of the process the waters are murky and confused, like a pond with koi flashing about.  Careful study can provide some insights, but there are a lot of meaningless polls and speculation and the "big fish" may be hard to spot. 
Selected Indicators 

  • Hugh Winebrenner, professor of public administration at Drake University, notes that in Iowa pre-campaign maneuvering has been particularly intense on the Republican side in the lead up to 2000.  In the period from Jan. 20, 1997 to Nov. 2, 1998 Winebrenner tallied 189 days spent in Iowa by 17 Republican presidential prospects.  By comparison at the same stage of the 1996 campaign (Jan. 93 to Nov. 94) 12 Republican prospects had spend 69 days.  "We've never had as intense an early campaign as we have had this time with the Republicans," he said. Winebrenner explains that Republicans have no heir apparent for the first time in decades.  For the Democrats, with Vice President Gore seen as a strong frontrunner, Iowa travel has not been as extensive.  From Jan. 20, 1997 to Nov. 2, 1998 seven Democratic prospects spent 44 days in Iowa.  View Hugh Winebrenner's Iowa Scorecard. 

  • Money. 

  • A potential presidential candidate may decide to write a book as a means of getting his our her views out into the public. Besides providing insights into the individual's philosophies and views, a book affords a rationale for traveling the country and doing lots of media: Books from the Pre-Campaign Period. 

  • Examples of TV ads from the pre-campaign period: Lamar Alexander, John Ashcroft, Gary Bauer, and Steve Forbes. Ads from Texas Governor George W. Bush's re-election campaign and from Arizona Senator John McCain's re-election campaign illustrate their appeal: George W. Bush re-election campaign, John McCain re-election campaign.
Copyright 1998, 1999 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.