When the Race for President Begins

Hint: The Campaign Almost Never Stops

Donald Trump - Hillary Clinton Debate
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Presidential elections are held every four years, but campaigning for the most powerful position in the free world never really ends. Politicians who aspire to the White House begin building alliances, seeking endorsements, and raising money years before they announce their intentions.

The never-ending campaign is a modern phenomenon. The all-important role money now plays in influencing elections has forced members of Congress and even the president to begin tapping donors and holding fundraisers even before they're sworn into office.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative reporting organization in Washington, D.C., writes:

"Once upon a time not terribly long ago, federal politicians more or less kept their campaigning to election years. They reserved their energies in odd-numbered, non-election years for legislating and governing. No longer."

While much of the work of running for president happens behind the scenes, there is a moment when every candidate must step forward in a public setting and make an official declaration that they are seeking the presidency.

This is when the race for president begins in earnest.

The 2020 presidential election will be held Nov. 3.

The Year Before the Election

In the four most recent presidential races in which there was no incumbent, the nominees launched their campaigns an average of 531 days before the election took place.

That's about one year and seven months before the presidential election. That means presidential campaigns typically begin in the spring of the year before the presidential election.

Presidential candidates select running mates much later in the campaign.

2020 Presidential Campaign

The 2020 presidential election is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Incumbent president, Republican Donald Trump officially filed for reelection to a second term on January 20, 2017, the day he was first inaugurated. He became the presumptive Republican nominee on March 17, 2020, after securing a majority of pledged convention delegates. On November 7, 2018, Trump confirmed that incumbent Vice President Mike Pence would again be his running mate. 

A Donald Trump and a Joe Biden supporter converse before the Biden Campaign Rally at the National World War I Museum and Memorial on March 7, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
A Donald Trump and a Joe Biden supporter converse before the Biden Campaign Rally at the National World War I Museum and Memorial on March 7, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

On the Democratic side, former Vice President Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee on April 8, 2020, after Senator Bernie Sanders, the last remaining major Democratic candidate, suspended his campaign. A total of 29 major candidates had vied for the Democratic nomination, the most of any political party since the primary elections system began in the 1890s. By early June, Biden had exceeded the 1,991 delegates needed to gain the nomination at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. On August 11, 2020, Biden announced he had selected 55-year-old Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate, making her the first Black woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket. 

For the first time in history, a first-term president faced impeachment while running for reelection. On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He was subsequently acquitted in the Senate trial, which ended on February 5, 2020. Trump continued to hold campaign rallies throughout the impeachment process. However, the four U.S. Senators then running for the Democratic nomination were forced to remain in Washington during the trial. 

The 2020 campaign has been further complicated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders canceled all further in-person campaign events on March 10, 2020, following primary elections in six states. President Trump postponed his planned campaign rallies on March 12, not holding his next rally until June 13, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Democrats widely criticized the Trump campaign for holding the event at a time when COVID-19 infections were increasing in several states. 

2016 Presidential Campaign

The 2016 presidential election was held on Nov. 8, 2016. There was no incumbent because President Barack Obama was finishing his second and final term

The eventual Republican nominee and president, reality-television star and billionaire real-estate developer Donald Trump, announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015—513 days, or one year and nearly five months before the election.

Donald Trump inaugural ball
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017. Kevin Dietsch - Pool / Getty Images

Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator who served as secretary of the Department of State under Obama, announced her presidential campaign on April 12, 2015—577 days or one year and seven months before the election.

2008 Presidential Campaign

The 2008 presidential election was held on Nov. 4, 2008. There was no incumbent because President George W. Bush was serving his second and final term.

Democrat Obama, the eventual victor, and a U.S. Senator, announced he was seeking his party's nomination for the presidency on Feb. 10, 2007—633 days, or one year, 8 months and 25 days before the election.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama
Barack H. Obama is sworn in as president of the United States on the West Front of the Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain announced his intentions to seek his party's presidential nomination on April 25 of 2007—559 days, or one year, six months and 10 days before the election.

2000 Presidential Campaign

The 2000 presidential election was held on Nov. 7, 2000. There was no incumbent because President Bill Clinton was serving his second and final term.

Republican George W. Bush, the eventual winner and governor of Texas, announced he was seeking his party's presidential nomination on June 12, 1999—514 days, or one year, four months and 26 days before the election.

President George W. Bush addressing first-responders at 9/11 attack Ground Zero
Bush Speaks At Ground Zero. The White House / Getty Images

Democrat Al Gore, the vice president, announced he was seeking the party's nomination for the presidency on June 16, 1999—501 days, or one year, four months and 22 days before the election.

1988 Presidential Campaign

The 1988 presidential election was held on Nov. 8, 1988. There was no incumbent because President Ronald Reagan was serving his second and final term.

Republican George H.W. Bush, who was vice president at the time, announced he was seeking the party's presidential nomination on Oct. 13, 1987—392 days, or one year and 26 days before the election.

Democrat Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, announced he was seeking his party's presidential nomination on April 29, 1987—559 days, or one year, six months and 10 days before the election.

Updated by Robert Longley