So we should not be surprised to hear that former president Donald Trump may soon announce a 2024 presidential candidacy, a break from the traditional pattern of waiting until after the midterm elections. There’s nothing structural that would keep someone from declaring a candidacy the very day of a presidential inauguration, as Trump did on the day he became president. In fact, there’s nothing preventing you from declaring your candidacy years in advance. But there were reasons not to, reasons that simply don’t apply to Trump. On the flip side, Trump has good reasons to jump in now that past candidates haven’t.
Why candidates usually play coy with announcements
In 2015, I spoke with several people to explore the then-normal “thinking about running line” that potential-slash-eventual candidates often deployed. They identified several reasons it often made sense for the candidates to do so.
1. They don't want to step on the midterm elections. Imagine Trump telling someone I want to run for office but I want to allow the midterms to be the focus of political attention.
2. They are genuinely unsure of whether they want to run. Longtime political consultant Stuart Stevens told me then that he had encountered a number of candidates who were generally uncertain about whether running made sense and used the pre-announcement time to evaluate that question.
It's probably true in general that a former president seeking to run would have fewer questions about the viability/burden of the process. It is, again, obviously not something that Trump is spending an inordinate amount of time mulling over.
3. They don’t want to trigger reporting obligations. This is the big one for many candidates. Even exploring a bid is expensive; it requires extensive polling, among other things. Before someone formally becomes a candidate, those costs can be covered through third-party individuals or committees and shared with the potential candidate without violating federal law. (As Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics told me then, “This is just the best example of the old adage: The outrage isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal.”) Once they become a candidate, they have to both report donations and be subject to the scrutiny that accompanies those reports. Trump is probably not concerned about either of those limits. He can feel confident about his ability to quickly raise a lot of money and has reported donors for years.
On the flip side, Trump doesn’t need to figure out a loophole to fund pre-candidacy activity. He already has a political action committee that is warehousing millions of dollars, thanks to his post-election fundraising push aimed at proving that the 2020 election was stolen. (It wasn’t, and he has spent little to nothing trying to demonstrate that it was.) This is actually one reason he might not want to declare, ironically. Right now, that money can be spent on nearly anything, including office space at Trump Tower. If Trump declares, using that money to cover expenses becomes trickier, though not impossible.
Why Trump might want to declare now
Then there are the various reasons that Trump might proactively want to formally announce his candidacy three years out.
4. It will help freeze the field. Right now, potential Republican 2024 candidates are in the awkward position of having to figure out how to ally with Trump (and avoid irritating the most-vocal part of the Republican base) while positioning themselves to potentially run against him. If Trump jumps in, one effect will be to immediately spur potential candidates to decline to run. Who wants to deal with two-plus years of highly personal attacks from a guy who’s already got millions of votes in the bank?
This also helps solidify Trump’s grip on the party. The longer he goes on as a former president and not a future one, the more the conversation turns to other potential candidates. Declaring his candidacy will allow Trump to demand that other prominent figures step up to endorse him and donors to contribute, making it hard or impossible for, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to do the same.
5. It allows Trump to cast potential criminal investigations as political. It’s not like Trump wouldn’t declare any criminal probe into him or his company as a political witch hunt regardless, given that this is what he has done with the Trump Organization probe underway in New York. But it does make it more politically cumbersome for Democratic officials at the state or federal level if they are looking at the actions of a declared candidate for the presidency.
6. It lets the GOP cast Biden as a lame duck. If Donald Trump declares his candidacy tomorrow, it makes it seem as though the 2024 election is already underway, a rematch of last year’s contest. Republicans have tried to blur the way in which “lame duck” is used as a descriptor, from the blockade of President Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland using the rationale (later conveniently abandoned) that the voters should weigh in before the vacant seat was filled, to the use of “lame duck” to describe Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this year to imply that Republicans will retake the House next year.
Casting Biden as facing an imminent challenge allows the party to extend the window of the Garland tactic: How can Biden be allowed to do anything with an election around the corner? Is this ridiculous? Yes. Is it impossible to imagine being taken seriously? Well, have you been paying attention over the past few years?
7. It gives the media more reason to treat his blizzard of “statements” as something worthy of coverage. Since losing his social media platforms, Trump is very eager to reinject himself into the national conversation. If he’s an actual candidate, it becomes harder for the media to wave off his incessant fulminations as unimportant.
This brings us to perhaps the most important reason that Trump might declare soon.
8. Running for president was the only part of the presidency that Trump clearly seemed to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, Trump liked the power and the pomp of being president. But what he really wanted to do was stand before crowds of thousands of breathlessly enthusiastic people, riffing for hours at a time on his opinions to deafening applause. When he won in 2016, he then transitioned away from campaigning to a thank-you tour of the same sorts of rallies he had been holding as a candidate. As president, he turned nearly every official White House event into a proto-campaign rally, causing legal headaches for his lawyers.
None of this means that Trump will actually stick with it. It does seem very possible that Trump will declare his candidacy to achieve the outcomes above for the next three years — then switch at the last minute to supporting someone else to avoid the possibility of losing the popular vote three times in a row.
But if you are banking on his not running, I ask again: Have you been paying attention since 2015?