Time's Not on Your Side

Time's Not on Your Side
Deciding against a White House bid, Chris Christie adds credence to the theory that late comers can't win. 

Had he decided to run, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would have been the first major candidate to formally launch a presidential campaign so close to the lead off nominating contest since Iowa moved its caucuses into January back in 2000.

Christie would have had just about three months to get a national organization off the ground had he launched Tuesday. In past cycles, that would have been enough time – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for instance, launched his first campaign for the White House on Sept. 27, 1999 in New Hampshire, albeit after campaigning heavily in the months beforehand.  

But the 2012 primary calendar will likely be even more front loaded than it was in 2008. Officials in Florida and Nevada have endorsed plans to hold their votes in January, which may cause some of the traditional early states to schedule contests in December 2011. 

With that in mind, would it have been possible for Christie – or, say, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – to begin a campaign in October 2011? Several top consultants say no, arguing that the window to launch a campaign has slammed shut and the field is now set.

A candidate “needs to have the time to build a fundraising base and a political organization that can sustain itself over a two-year cycle,” Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant who recently stepped down as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R) presidential campaign manager, told C&E. “Planning, structure, endurance, adequate staff, are all key ingredients and take time to build.”

There are some advantages to arriving late to the party. Texas Gov. Rick Perry became the perceived GOP frontrunner after he entered the race in mid August. His arrival generated significant media buzz and he was able to avoid spending the money necessary to maintain a robust organization in the early primary states.

But Rollins says Perry won’t have enough time to build a successful campaign structure and even Bachmann, who entered the race in June, could come up short.

“Perry and Bachmann are just following in the footsteps of [former Tennessee Sen.] Fred Thompson and others in the past who got in before their organizations were ready to go all the way,” Rollins says. “When momentum catches up with a lack of organization, the campaign is doomed to failure.”

Tad Devine, who advised Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during his 2004 presidential run, says the barriers to late entry are “perhaps insurmountable” in the context of the modern political calendar.

“From ballot access, to fundraising, to state organization building to assembling an experienced campaign team, the time, effort and expense of this endeavor are real impediments to any late entry,” Devine says.

Christie, who was elected in 2009, would have faced “enormous scrutiny” had he jumped into the race Tuesday, Devine adds. “With everything from fixed tickets, to helicopter rides to his son's [baseball] game to serious allegations of conflicts of interest, all need time to be explained and handled.”

Still, some experts say the tools available to modern campaigns can help candidates navigate an abbreviated courtship with their party’s primary electorate. But as the early stages of Perry's campaign has demonstrated, late comers need to be ready for the added scrutiny.  

“Technology and media make it possible to announce late,” says Mark McKinnon, a media consultant who worked for both George W. Bush’s successful presidential campaigns. “But it also creates a firestorm of instant attention and you better have your fire hoses ready.”

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