Avoiding the "First Primary"?

Herman Cain announced his 2012 Presidential exploratory committee formation today, the first (somewhat) significant candidate to do so.

Most importantly, this forces polijournos like me to decide between "Is Cain Able?" "Yes He Cain?" "A Cain Mutiny in GOP?" "Raising Cain" and "Cain-Do Spirit" for our headlines.

It also prompts us to ponder, why haven't the other candidates announced? Almost all had done so by this time four years ago.

My brother has some very good points about that today, on his blog here. But I'd add another observation.

Four years ago, people involved with Mitt Romney's fundraising effort talked about the 1st Quarter 2007 FEC campaign report as "the first primary." And they were right. Through March, Romney was talked about as one of a group of largely indistinguishable second-tier candidates, like Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, and Jim Gilmore. Then came the Q1'07 reports, with Romney raising $20 million, and the others, um, not so much. From that point, it was looked at as a "big 3" race, McCain-Giuliani-Romney, with the others completely ignored -- a condition that lasted until Huckabee broke through with a strong performance at the August Iowa Straw Poll (which itself has often been called 'the first primary').

A similar tale transpired on the Democrats' side, with that 'first primary' solidifying the impression that Obama was in Hillary Clinton's league, not in the Richardson-Biden-Dodd second tier. 

The lesson learned, I sense from people I talk to, is that you should only enter that 'first primary' if you know you're going to win it. ("Win it" could mean different things to different candidates, BTW.) If you're a Pawlenty or Thune or Pence or Daniels or whoever, you better know you can put up a figure in Romney's ballpark, or you don't want to put up a number at all.

Better to sit it out -- like Fred Thompson did. He was able to jump in later and get treated as a potential top tier candidate, because he hadn't already proven himself a loser in that 'first primary.' (Although he would soon enough.)

My strong impression from Republican insiders is that there is way too much uncertainty in the fundraising potential right now, for most of these candidates to know for sure they can do well in the Q1 contest. Too many big moneymakers are either sitting on the fence, or if they're on board, are saying that too many of their bundle-contributors are still on the fence.

That's partly because the mysterious signs emanating from the Oracle of Wasila, but also because of uncertainty about other candidates -- for instance, there's a lot of Texas money that won't jump until Rick Perry decides in or out -- and also uncertainty about the chances to beat Obama, and hence the level of willingness to openly fund his opponents.

Of course, all this is ending up doing is pushing off the "1st primary" to second quarter fundraising reports. But I think that's a big part of what's happening.

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