It's hard to miss the evidence that the 2016 presidential race is already well underway. We have plenty of ambitious politicians raising lots of money, hiring staff, opening field offices, doing interviews, taking subtle jabs at rivals, and spending an inordinate amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Pollsters are conducting surveys; news organizations are scheduling debates; and various groups are organizing straw polls. For all intents and purposes, the race is on.
What we don't have are actual candidates.
Listen to any of the would-be presidents talk about the race and you'll hear perfunctory qualifiers: "if I run"; "if we move forward"; "we're still planning the next steps"; etc. At this point, several candidates have created super PACs or exploratory committees, but a grand total of zero people have launched their presidential campaigns.
The result is a curious complaint: we've grown accustomed to the political world expressing dismay at how early the campaign process begins, but this year, we've reached mid-March, and we're still waiting for someone, anyone, to deliver a formal kick-off speech.
To put this in perspective, by mid-March of 2007, seven Democrats and four Republicans had already launched their campaigns. One candidate, then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), had already announced his candidacy and dropped out of the race by this point in the process eight years ago.
And yet, here we are. We have a pretty good sense of who the candidates are going to be, and the race certainly seems to be underway, but as a technical matter, the field remains empty. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over the weekend briefly referred to himself as a "candidate" on Twitter, only to quickly delete the tweet soon after, scurrying back to his "unannounced for now" status.
What's driving this? It's not that the candidates are being coy. Rather it has to do with fundraising laws. The Wall Street Journal reported the other day:
All the masking of true intentions and wink-and-nod suggestions about work to be done in the coming year are the result of a campaign-finance law that is triggered the moment one declares oneself running for federal office.
It's obvious that the likely candidates are raising plenty of money and attending all kinds of fundraisers, but they're not yet collecting checks for their official campaign coffers. Rather, they're raising money for their political action committees, super PACs, and 527 entities. It gets complicated, but these affiliated entities have their own filing deadlines, disclosure requirements, and contribution caps. By remaining unannounced, the White House aspirants have quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to building a financial base.
Once they officially launch their campaigns, however, a different set of rules kick in, not only limiting how much candidates can collect from individual donors, but also restricting how the candidates can coordinate with allied groups.
We probably won't have to wait too much longer, though. The first debate for the Republican presidential field is in mid-August, and we'll probably see 10 or 11 GOP candidates by then.