Hillary Clinton 2016: Does timing of announcement matter?

Hillary Rodham Clinton can wait until spring, as she is reportedly planning, because she's universally known and can raise money quickly. But waiting could mean growing energy on the left for Elizabeth Warren.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at Georgetown University in Washington on Dec. 3.

Let’s say it’s 99 percent certain that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president. At least that’s the working assumption here inside the Beltway.

According to press reports citing advisers to Mrs. Clinton, she is now likely to make a formal announcement in the spring of 2015. That will allow her to clear the decks of paid speeches that are on her calendar into March. The later announcement also allows her inner circle to wait before making the necessary legal separation with the outside groups supporting her, such as Ready for Hillary.

“I had thought last summer or early fall that she might have an exploratory committee going by now, but it appears she doesn’t feel she’s in any rush, since she’ll probably raise as much money as she needs to raise,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

“I think they want to structure the announcement absolutely right,” Mr. Fenn adds. That’s especially the case after her summer book tour, which didn’t go so smoothly – starting with her comment that she and her husband, the former president, were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001. Sales of her memoir, “Hard Choices,” were flat.

Clinton doesn’t need to announce early to boost her public profile. She already has near-universal name ID. But she doesn’t want to wait so long that it looks too cute by half. The media drumbeat is likely to be deafening by the end of winter, if she’s still officially “pondering.” 

If she ends up not running, analysts expect her to let us know sooner than spring. A no-go decision would profoundly affect the shape of the Democratic field, and probably spur Vice President Joe Biden and possibly Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts to get in. 

But chances are, Clinton is in. She has met with potential campaign managers. Top Obama adviser John Podesta is on tap to serve as campaign chair.

So how important is the timing of a formal announcement, really? And is there a correlation between the timing of a presidential campaign rollout and its ultimate success?

Each presidential cycle has its own dynamic. In the 1992 campaign, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas waited until late – October 1991 – to announce his long-shot candidacy. But early 1991 was Operation Desert Storm, which left then-President George H. W. Bush looking unbeatable for reelection. The early field of Democratic challengers was weak. And the 800-pound gorilla, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), eventually opted out. Mr. Clinton had his opening.

When then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York ran for president the first time, she announced on Jan. 20, 2007. Senate colleague Barack Obama followed soon after, on Feb. 10. Each had an incentive to get in early. Clinton needed to establish her credibility as a prospective commander in chief and to get a jump on the charismatic young senator from Illinois. Senator Obama needed to build on his early fame, after his star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and to add substance to the flash.

Ultimately, it would appear, the timing of the announcements wasn’t a factor in Obama’s eventual nomination. Campaign strategies – and candidate quality – were more central.

This time, the biggest question is whether Senator Warren – “the beating heart of the Democratic base,” as Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake of The Washington Post put it – will get in. The populist Warren insists she’s not running, but if she did, that could take away Clinton’s expected coronation and make her sweat for the nomination.

Still, the left’s fantasy of a Warren presidential campaign may not match up to the reality.

“I don’t think she’s the next Obama,” says Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “I do think she’s the only person who really has the potential to become that person, but I don’t know, look at her [Senate] campaign in 2012. She was the reluctant candidate.”

If Warren were to run, and lose to Clinton, she could damage her brand and her causes, says Mr. Galdieri.

“Maybe the threat of Warren’s potential candidacy is more potent than actually running, at least for the next few months,” he says. “That might move Hillary more toward Warren’s positions.”

But as long as Clinton is waiting in the wings, and not an announced candidate, that could give heart to the “draft Warren” movement, creating a dynamic that hurts Clinton – even if it doesn’t cost her the nomination. And so in the end, perhaps Clinton announces sooner than spring. 

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