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If Stacey Abrams Wants To Run For President, She Probably Shouldn’t Wait Much Longer

Stacey Abrams has not yet ruled out a presidential run, saying last week that she might wait until the fall to decide whether to seek the Democratic nomination. If that sounds late, it’s because it is. Recent presidential nominees, from both parties, have typically taken the first public steps toward a campaign by at least the spring of the year before the first primary contest.

For each eventual presidential nominee since 1976 (not including incumbent presidents), I assigned a start date to his or her campaign based on which of the following came first: the formation of an exploratory committee, the filing of a presidential campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission or the formal announcement of the campaign. It turns out that the average campaign began 345 days before the Iowa caucuses.1 (For context, the next Iowa Democratic caucuses are currently scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020, and 345 days in advance was Feb. 23, 2019 — more than a month ago.)

Candidates who go on to be nominated tend to start early

Start dates of non-incumbent presidential nominees’ campaigns relative to the Iowa caucuses

Year Party Nominee Campaign start Days before Iowa
1976 D Jimmy Carter Dec. 12, 1974 403
1980 R Ronald Reagan March 5, 1979 322
1984 D Walter Mondale Jan. 3, 1983 413
1988 D Michael Dukakis March 16, 1987 329
1988 R George H.W. Bush Feb. 19, 1987 354
1992 D Bill Clinton Aug. 15, 1991 179
1996 R Bob Dole Jan. 12, 1995 396
2000 D Al Gore Jan. 1, 1999 388
2000 R George W. Bush March 7, 1999 323
2004 D John Kerry Dec. 1, 2002 414
2008 D Barack Obama Jan. 16, 2007 352
2008 R John McCain Nov. 16, 2006 413
2012 R Mitt Romney April 11, 2011 267
2016 D Hillary Clinton April 12, 2015 295
2016 R Donald Trump March 18, 2015 320
Average 345

Campaign start date is based on the earliest date that a candidate indicated they were running (either via an announcement of an exploratory committee, the filing of a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission or an official announcement of a presidential campaign).

Sources: Federal Election Commission, News reports

The shortest time between a nominee’s campaign start date and the Iowa caucuses came in 1992 — Democrat Bill Clinton announced the formation of an exploratory campaign on Aug. 15, 1991, just 179 days before the caucuses. But that cycle started late because President George H.W. Bush was so popular in the aftermath of the Gulf War that many potential Democratic candidates waited before declaring their candidacies. Next is Republican Mitt Romney, who announced an exploratory committee on April 11, 2011, only 267 days before the caucuses. In presidential elections since 1976, the non-incumbent presidential nominee who got the earliest start was Democrat John Kerry. On Dec. 1, 2002, he declared that he would form an exploratory committee — that was 414 days ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

In 2011, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver looked at the consequences of kicking off a campaign late and found that late starters struggled, perhaps more than we’d expect otherwise. For example, late entrants sometimes had insufficient time to organize in early caucus states such as Iowa or had trouble raising money.

Abrams, however, is in a interesting spot, which might be behind her failure to make a decision by now. She has options. Democratic leaders want Abrams, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Georgia last year, to make a 2020 Senate bid there. And former Vice President Joe Biden, who is reportedly likely to launch a presidential bid, has floated the idea of making Abrams his vice presidential pick. Abrams also could run for governor again in 2022.

But if she thinks a 2020 presidential run is her most likely option, she probably should get in sooner rather than later.

From ABC News:

Stacey Abrams: ‘You don’t run for second place’


  1. We started with the 1976 cycle because that is when the Iowa caucuses emerged as the crucial starting point in the primary process.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.