There are just a little more than 300 days until the first contest in the 2016 presidential election and only two candidates have announced a formal exploratory committee: Republican neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen others are traveling to critical primary states, meeting with donors, assembling staff and doing all of the things that candidates do. The only difference is they haven’t formally announced a presidential bid or its common precursor, the exploratory committee.
As NBC News has noted previously, the 2016 race is getting off to a relatively late start.
Regardless of their official -- or unofficial -- status they are no longer coy about their presidential aspirations. For instance, at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, both former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were what the top five priorities of their presidency would be. They didn’t deflect by saying that’s a bit premature. They answered.
Candidates are amassing staff and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has opened an office in Iowa. They attend forums dedicated for presidential candidates, including one this coming weekend in Iowa that is focusing on agriculture and energy.
The Non-Campaign Campaign
So why not just announce?
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has no reason to jump in early when it's unlikely that she will have a formidable challenge.
But on the Republican side, the litany of candidates haven't taken the dive because then they would be confined to the rules and regulations imposed on presidential candidates.
“Once you file the papers, that starts the clock on the presidential campaign restrictions,” Anthony Corrado, election law expert and professor at Colby College, said.
In short, it comes down to money.
Declared presidential candidates, or those who form an exploratory committee, cannot accept money from corporations or unions, they must report their financial receipts and expenditures to the Federal Election Committee and the maximum they can raise from an individual is $2,700.
In the current environment, likely candidates have formed political groups, ranging from leadership political action committees to super PACs to tax-exempt 527 groups. They all have different functions and different rules they must abide by, but they allow likely candidate to raise a lot more money.
“I think that the reason you see that is that many of these candidates are taking advantages of other committees to finance their committees,” Corrado added.
Bush is actively on the fundraising trail, routinely attending high-dollar fundraisers, including a $50,000 per plate dinner in New York next week, for his Right to Rise PAC.
Furthermore, the potential candidates can coordinate with these outside committees, something that is explicitly prohibited once a candidate formally becomes a candidate.
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, argues that the candidates could be breaking campaign finance law by engaging in pre-presidential activity and using funds above the $2700 limit to pay for such activity.
“At the end of the day, unless you can examine the financial records of the organizations, it’s impossible to state definitely that they are breaking the law,” Ryan said. “The FEC (Federal Election Committee) should be investigating.”
People who want to run do eventually have to file the paperwork. It's not politically smart to wait too long or else people will start disqualify you.
Expect April to be a big month for presidential announcements with either exploratory committees or formal announcements. Again, it comes down to money.
It’s the beginning of the second financial quarter, giving candidates the maximum amount of time - up to three months - before they have to report their finances to the FEC. The press, donors and potential supporters will scrutinize those fundraising records to determine viability.
“One of the clear indicators of strength is money,” Corrado notes. “It’s one of the clearest things that can be measured.”
Three months of official fundraising provides much more potential of looking like a top-tier candidate than one month.