Texas Senator Ted Cruz officially launched his presidential campaign on Monday, speaking to a packed crowd of somewhat-willing students. He is the first to formally, officially, this-time-I-really-mean-it announce among the likely 2016 presidential hopefuls. Others, like Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Jim Webb on the Democratic side, have formed exploratory committees, and many others have PACs financing their obvious pre-campaign activity. Rand Paul is expected to launch his official campaign on April 7th, and then embark on a multi-state announcement tour. But if all of these “likely candidates” are way more than just “likely,” why not make it real already?
The answer to that is relatively simple: campaign finance reporting laws. A big measure of a presidential candidate’s organizational strength and overall viability comes from their quarterly fundraising reports. A new one starts April 1st, so the thinking goes that you launch right at the beginning of a new quarter to maximize the money in your first report. The day you formally declare is obviously going to be one of your best fundraising days, as everyone excited for your run quickly goes to your website and donates. If you announce in the middle or the end of a reporting quarter, then you split up that big early boost and your next months’ fundraising, making both quarters look less-impressive.
That’s why so many of the big names, like Bush, Hillary Clinton, Scott Walker and Rick Perry, have waited until a likely April date, even as they campaign around the country and line up staff. But with Cruz’s announcement this week, it begs the question: is that the smart thing to do?
For Cruz, an early launch gave him full media attention for nearly the entire week. That’s something many others won’t get when a stampede of candidates’ announcements fill the April calendar each week. Cruz doesn’t seem to be one who cares about what the donor class thinks of his quarterly fundraising reports, so he doesn’t lose much there. His campaign’s success will hinge on his ability to consolidate the most conservative wings of the party. Money will help of course, but it’s not as essential as for people like Bush and Christie, who need more persuasion to overcome conservative voters’ concerns.
It’s also questionable as to how important the first quarter reporting really is to the long-term prospects of a campaign. How important is one news cycle in which the media talks of an underwhelming fundraising report? More important than being the only announced candidate and soaking up attention you wouldn’t otherwise get for weeks and weeks? Really, if Cruz wanted to maximize an early-start strategy, he should have launched back in February.
Imagine if Martin O’Malley had boldly declared he’s an official candidate back in January or February and barnstormed Iowa and New Hampshire. Would his name have entered the conversation more often during the two weeks of media coverage on Clinton’s email problems? Sure, Clinton would blow him away in fundraising on just her first day, but that’s going to happen anyway. It says a lot about the Democratic field that they’re just willing to let her go first with an announcement. Any of them could have positioned themselves as the anti-Clinton by officially campaigning long before the others do.
It’s happening on the Republican side too, as people like Bobby Jindal hold out for a later start date. Jindal certainly appears like he wants to run, but he could get lost in the mix by delaying serious campaigning. Even more confusing is Ben Carson’s hesitancy to get more in the competition. There’s actually a wellspring of excitement for him among the conservative base, and yet he’s doing nothing to capitalize on it. By the time he starts visiting the Pizza Ranches in Iowa, the Fox News crowd may have found a new conservative darling.
A number of these underdogs are playing the presidential game too conventionally. Yes, campaign finance reporting logic dictates you wait until April. But then you’ll just be drowned out by the media’s excitement over the big names getting in. If you stick to the conventional script, then the conventional result will happen: the long-shots will lose and those with the most money and gravitas will win.
Cruz gets it – he’s never been a conventional politician by any stretch of the imagination. His staff has even privately admitted that he’s unlikely to win, but that he’s looking at the long-term, hoping to set himself up for later when the party is even more conservative, similar to what Ronald Reagan did by running in 1976. That’s the type of thinking many of these other candidates couldn’t even comprehend – and is exactly why they’re giving up opportunities to stand out and take down the front-runners.
by Pat Rynard