The 2015 presidential campaign – yes, 2015 – isn’t a hunt for votes.
At least 23 credible political figures are considering running for the two major-party nominations. And they’re all hunting for the magic concoction of money, attention and friends that could vault them into the top tier in the next 12 months, by the time the first voting starts in caucuses and primaries.
Here’s a look at what to watch for:
Bulging donor lists intimidate less well-heeled candidates. Those without money or fat cat friends usually drop out or get left behind. In summer 1999, for example, Elizabeth Dole began to surge, then quickly left the race, unable to keep up with George W. Bush’s big bucks.
Best bets for cash: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. All have big names and come from big states with lots of contributors.
Shaky bets: Among Democrats, everyone but Clinton. In the Republican race, Rick Santorum did well for awhile in 2012, but may find it difficult to get 2016 money in a crowded field. Similarly, Mike Huckabee found money woes hurting his 2008 run.
Get that bandwagon effect going and voters may jump on board. Polls mean the most late in the year, once the debate season begins and voters pay more attention.
Best bets: Clinton, plus Bush, Christie, Huckabee and Rand Paul, will dominate till the fall.
Shaky bets: The lesser-knowns, such as Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina.
Debates should start in the fall, and they’ll allow voters to measure whether a candidate looks worthy. Those who flop, as Perry did in 2011, are probably doomed.
It could be hard to separate future presidents from pretenders this time, since the fields might have lots of experienced debaters.
Best bets: Clinton and all the current and former governors and senators.
Worst bets: All of the above. They’ve all stumbled at times on the public stage. Plus political novices such as Ben Carson and John Bolton.
Ideologically driven voters play an outsized role in nominating contests. They tend to get more media attention, and even if their candidates falter, they can influence the eventual nominee. See Pat Buchanan’s conservative army, which pushed George H.W. Bush to the right in 1992.
The Republican right and the Democratic left should have a lot of clout. Clinton polls well among Democrats, but 40 percent of that electorate, mostly liberal, is eying alternatives. Republicans are so fractured that a strong conservative might emerge as a front-runner.
Best bet: Still Clinton.
Shaky bets: Any Republican. It’s wide open.
Big-time endorsements, particularly by governors, mean access to political organizations in key states. They also help cement the idea that the candidate is respected by the powerful.
With such a big field, endorsements from key Republicans might help differentiate candidates. Democrats have a different scenario: Clinton is the establishment’s choice, leaving challengers an opening to declare themselves true outsiders.
Best bets: Clinton. It’s already started. Republicans: Bush.
Shaky bets: Everyone else.
IOWA, NEW HAMPSHIRE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Iowa’s voters go first in 2016 in town hall-like caucuses, followed by voters in New Hampshire in the first primary. Then usually comes South Carolina, the first test in the South. Because they’re relatively small states with sophisticated voters, candidates campaign the old-fashioned way: living room coffees, small town rallies and so on.
The action kicks off this Jan. 24, when candidates will appear at the Iowa Freedom Summit. After that comes a steady diet of party dinners, straw polls and lots more.
Best bets: Clinton, who won in New Hampshire last time she ran. For the Republicans: Maybe Bush, thanks to the family network. Santorum retains a following in Iowa. Paul inherits his father’s supporters. Also worth watching: Huckabee, a longtime favorite of Iowa evangelicals, though he finished behind John McCain in South Carolina in 2008.
Shaky bets: Everyone else.
Usually the first big-state test, a warm-up for the general election. It has it all: sizable populations of conservatives, blacks, Hispanics, urban and rural. And it usually takes big money to blanket the state with ads and workers.
If the small states produce multiple winners, Florida sorts ’em out and usually produces a front-runner with momentum. If someone sweeps the first states, Florida virtually assures ’em the nomination.
Best bets: If Bush or Rubio runs, the GOP contest is for second place. Christie might do well in the part of the state with the huge former Northeast and Midwest population. Clinton also shouldn’t have much trouble here.
Shaky bets: Anyone with strong support from only one bloc of the party, meaning potential trouble for Huckabee, Carson, Cruz, maybe Scott Walker and Jindal.
It’s a rite of nomination season: Candidates few have heard of emerge as the Great New Hope. They often fade once they’re subjected to scrutiny. Remember Herman Cain? Howard Dean? Steve Forbes?
Lots of potential here. Non-politicos such as Carson, Fiorina and Bolton are thinking of running. So are barely known or barely remembered figures such as Peter King and Jim Webb.
Best bets: Carson might have money and support. Webb’s moderate views and dead-serious style make him unique among Democrats.
Shaky bets: Bolton is barely known outside insider circles. Fiorina lost her 2010 California U.S. Senate race.
Having an inevitable nominee scares off would-be challengers. The year starts with Clinton as the big Democratic favorite. Of course, she had that distinction in 2007, too.
Bush comes closest to having that aura among Republicans. But “Bush fatigue’’ is likely to come up, and the party’s right has doubts about him. “Undecided” led the latest McClatchy-Marist Republican presidential poll.
Best bets: Clinton and maybe Bush.
Shaky bets: No one else has that aura.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for when Rick Perry flopped in the debates. It was 2011.