Last month, former President Donald Trump announced his campaign to return to the White House, more than a year before the start of the 2024 presidential primary process. So far, Trump is the only major Republican candidate who’s launched a bid.1 While his entry may deter some opponents from running, it’s unlikely Trump will have the GOP primary entirely to himself.
But just how long will we have to wait until someone decides to take on Trump? We took a look at open presidential primaries between 1980 and 2020 (meaning they didn’t feature an incumbent) and noted when every candidate either filed with the Federal Election Commission or announced their candidacy, whichever came first.2 (Trump did both on Nov. 15.) Using this data, we compared how far in advance of the Iowa caucuses — the long-running first electoral stop — these candidates formally began their campaigns.
About 3 in 4 primary candidates in this period launched their bids between 210 and 420 days before Iowa, with about 2 in 5 starting between 300 and 390 days (roughly 10 to 13 months) before voting began. To put that in context, Republicans plan for Iowa to lead off their 2024 nomination calendar — unlike Democrats — and as the caucuses have traditionally taken place between early January and mid-February, we are now roughly 375 to 425 days away from them. Based on the 210- to 420-day range, then, we might expect most of Trump’s eventual opponents to enter the race sometime between just after New Year’s and June 2023.
While we’ve tried to comprehensively examine when candidates most commonly launch presidential bids, it’s worth pointing out that registering the exact date a campaign begins is far murkier than the date of an FEC filing or a formal announcement. In reality, prospective candidates take steps toward running well before making anything official, such as gathering a stable of potential donors, identifying campaign staff and engaging in public activities that can signal a run, such as visiting early-voting states like Iowa, publishing a book about themselves or campaigning on behalf of candidates in other elections. Presidential aspirants sometimes form an “exploratory committee” to test the waters before taking more official steps. But candidates don’t have to register or report this activity to the FEC until they formally become a candidate, so sometimes we initially learn of an exploratory committee’s formation only because the candidate reveals it, a move that can garner a splash of media attention before the candidate later makes an official announcement. And more recently, some candidates like Jeb Bush have had allied super PACs raise gobs of money months before the candidate officially enters the race, blurring the lines of what even counts as “exploratory.”
Among the 15 primary candidates who eventually won the open-nomination races between 1980 and 2020, all but one began their formal campaigns at some point in that 210- to 420-day range. In 2016, for instance, Trump rode down the Trump Tower escalator 230 days prior to Iowa’s caucuses.3 In 2012, Mitt Romney announced 215 days beforehand, while in 2008 John McCain filed with the FEC 413 days ahead of caucus voting. Only Bill Clinton entered a primary less than 210 days out: He filed for the 1992 contest just 178 days before Iowa, emblematic of that cycle’s late-developing campaign due to the expectation that the then-popular President George H.W. Bush would be difficult to defeat.
But the Clinton example shows how each cycle’s individual conditions can influence candidates’ decisions to launch. For instance, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered the 2020 Democratic contest less than 90 days before the Iowa caucuses, seeking to capitalize on concerns about front-runner Biden’s strength as a candidate.
Alternatively, an especially early entry is usually the mark of a relatively unknown contender looking to maximize their time to raise money and attract attention. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney declared for the 2020 Democratic race 920 days before Iowa — the record for the years we looked at — but he and most others who entered more than 420 days before voting began wound up winning very little support. That’s not always the case for early announcers — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (598 days) was once a leading contender in the 2004 Democratic race.
To this point, we can see how the 2024 cycle’s circumstances likely encouraged Trump to announce on the earlier side. His launch date will likely be more than 400 days ahead of Iowa’s vote, depending on the caucuses’ actual date. On the one hand, Trump’s situation is unprecedented in modern times: Since the current presidential primary system took shape in the 1970s, no former president has run again.4 But by getting in early, Trump not only made real an unofficial campaign that arguably dated back to his departure from the White House, but he also reportedly did so to deter possible primary opponents and gain support from Republican leaders, who’ve fallen in line behind him in the past. (Trump may have also wanted to become an active candidate before state or federal officials potentially filed criminal charges against him in cases regarding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, improperly retaining classified documents and interfering in Georgia’s 2020 electoral process.)
Whether this approach will successfully discourage primary challengers remains to be seen. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has dismissed questions about his presidential aspirations, but between his upcoming autobiography, his continued fundraising and the post-midterm primary polling that’s found him running ahead of Trump, it’d be surprising if he didn’t end up running. Still, DeSantis may postpone his entry until after Florida’s legislative session ends in early May, which would be roughly 240 to 290 days before Iowa. By waiting, DeSantis can open his campaign by trumpeting his conservative policy achievements, including any additional ones passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature in the upcoming session. But more fundamentally, DeSantis may want the Legislature to act before he runs to make it less costly for him to seek the presidency: Under Florida’s “resign to run” law, state officeholders must resign their office if they run for federal office, but Republican legislative leaders are considering changes to ease DeSantis’s potential presidential bid.
Regardless of DeSantis’s motivations for waiting, it wouldn’t be weird for a sitting governor to wait for the end of a state’s legislative session, at least before holding a public announcement. For instance, in 1999, George W. Bush didn’t formally declare his candidacy until June, following the end of Texas’s state-legislative session, although he did file with the FEC in March 1999 (reflected in the chart). In 2015, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also waited for the state-legislative session to conclude, officially launching his campaign for the 2016 Republican primary about two weeks after the state Legislature adjourned (he filed with the FEC two days after announcing).
As for other potential Trump opponents, the former president’s long shadow might push some aspirants to embrace a wait-and-see attitude. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have been positioning themselves for possible runs, but assuming Hogan doesn’t announce a bid before he leaves office on Jan. 18, neither of them will have official duties that might influence their timing. Former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tried to cozy up to Trump after opposing him in 2016, so they may be wary of challenging him, although Haley recently walked back a pledge to support Trump in the 2024 primary. Others who may be looking to run, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, could be influenced by the timing of their state-legislative sessions.
Still, from the data we’ve examined here, we can see that the timing of Trump’s entry into the 2024 presidential race was fairly early compared with past presidential cycles, though by no means an obvious outlier. And once the new year rolls around, we should be on guard for further candidate announcements at any time. We have reason to suspect that DeSantis, Trump’s clearest potential rival, may wait until the late spring to announce, but that doesn’t mean some other possible contenders won’t enter in the meantime.