New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks in Manahawkin, N.J., on Jan. 16, 2014. (Mel Evans/AP)

The presidential candidates are already out on the trail. Official announcements are just weeks away. But many of the states that will decide which candidates capture their parties’ nominations have yet to decide how or when those contests will take place.

Earlier this month, Kentucky Republicans took the first step toward abandoning a presidential primary in favor of a caucus, at the behest of Sen. Rand Paul. Elsewhere, supporters of more centrist candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) are pushing for primaries they believe will attract a more moderate electorate than caucus contests, which typically draw a more vocal conservative crowd.

And the question marks surround not just the way voters will make their voices heard, but also when. Some Southern conservatives, led by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), are banding together to hold their primaries earlier. Other states are moving further forward in the calendar, banking on a long Republican primary in which they could play a deciding role.

The way all of these questions are resolved will have a significant — possibly even decisive — impact on the way the presidential primary season plays out.

“We pay very close attention to the primary calendar. We know there’s a great deal of time for it to shake out, but if states start to move, it could create a domino effect,” said one source close to Christie’s campaign-in-waiting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a window into internal strategy.

Until the calendar is finalized, the strategists plotting presidential campaigns that will evolve over the next year have to leave parts of their detailed plans blank.

The order of the first four nominating contests is set — Iowa will hold its caucuses eight days before the New Hampshire primary, followed by caucuses in Nevada and the South Carolina primary. But the actual dates on which other states hold their contests are not.

Both Democratic and Republican national committees have implemented rules intended to allow the four early contests to happen in February 2016. But once March arrives, party rules allow any state to hold its nominating contest. That fact is setting off an intense jockeying for position among states seeking to maximize their influence.

More than a dozen states are considering changing the date of their nominating contests in advance of next year’s elections. Half a dozen legislatures are considering bills to move to later dates, either to bring existing laws into compliance with party rules or to find an empty spot on the calendar that would guarantee they have the field’s complete attention.

Seven others are considering moving their primaries up, under the theory that holding a contest earlier will earn them more influence.

Five of those seven states are actively working to band together to bolster their regional influence. Georgia’s secretary of state and his counterparts in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama are planning what he calls the SEC Primary, named after the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference. That vote would be held on March 1 — the earliest date a state could hold its nominating contest to avoid sanctions from either political party. In an interview, Kemp said creating the SEC Primary was his biggest priority.

“We’re going to have a whole boatload of contests in March,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Appalachian State University who runs a blog that tracks presidential nominating contests and their rules. “There’s always a state legislator that comes along and says, ‘Why are Iowa and New Hampshire first? Why can’t we be first?’ ”

After decades of delicate negotiations within and between both political parties, and the threat of chaos as states jockeyed for position in 2008 and 2012, the DNC and the RNC have implemented strict rules governing the process. Both parties want to condense the primary calendar to avoid long, costly and damaging nominating contests.

DNC rules require every state other than the first four to conduct their nominating contests between March 1 and June 14. RNC rules require contests to be completed by late May.

States that do not comply with party rules risk losing a minimum of half their allotted delegates, and potentially their entire delegations, subject to decisions from both parties’ central committees.

Once the dates are set, states must decide how they will allocate their delegates, whether by primary, caucus or party convention. Primaries, in which polls are open for 12 hours or more, attract a broad swath of a party’s base, and in some states independent voters too. Caucuses, which require voters to attend hours-long meetings at specific times, attract a much smaller, more committed — and, usually, more ideological — crowd.

At least eight states are debating how they will award delegates. Legislators and party officials are debating measures to establish primaries in Minnesota, Idaho, Missouri and Washington. In Kansas and Kentucky, legislators and party leaders are in the process of canceling primaries in favor of caucuses. And in Virginia and Utah, party officials want to hold nominating conventions, which would shrink the eligible electorate even more than caucuses.

Most Republican Party strategists believe a primary’s larger electorate is better for more centrist candidates, such as Christie and Bush, over more ardent conservatives such as Paul and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Smaller caucuses and conventions, the thinking goes, are better for those more conservative candidates, who have a disproportionate number of extra-passionate supporters.

“Rand Paul has shown a great ability to win caucuses. He’s got the most ardent supporters,” said former congressman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who has argued for primaries over conventions in his home state. “If you’re Jeb Bush, you don’t want this.”

Paul has another reason to support a caucus system, at least in Kentucky: State law does not allow a candidate to appear on a ballot twice, and Paul’s Senate seat is up in 2016. A caucus would allow Paul to appear on a primary ballot for Senate and compete for Kentucky’s presidential delegates without breaking the law.

Paul strategists declined to discuss their calculations. “Dr. Paul’s campaign is studying the lay of the land, has a top-notch political team and is already implementing a strategy to win states and maximize delegates on Super Tuesday and beyond,” Jesse Benton, Paul’s longtime adviser, said in an e-mail.

In other words, Paul’s campaign, like that of his competitors, is studying the campaign terrain as it now stands — and waiting to see how that landscape may shift under their feet.