Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox


Spencer Cox has formally announced his candidacy for governor and is off and running hard. It’s a very early formal start to a gubernatorial campaign.

Meanwhile, Aimee Winder-Newton and Jeff Burningham have not formally announced, but both are visiting people across the state, and Burningham is staffing up.

Thomas Wright is making plans and talking to a lot of people.

Greg Miller is still considering a run; Jon Huntsman won’t be back in Utah until later in the fall; and Greg Hughes has been uncharacteristically quiet.

So, when is the right time to announce a candidacy for a major statewide office? Can Cox maintain momentum and keep voters interested over the next 14 months until November 2020?

There’s no standard answer, of course, because it depends on a candidate’s current employment, name ID, self-funding capabilities, and the strength of opponents.

We’re still a little less than five months before candidates can begin gathering signatures to get on the ballot (Jan. 2), seven months before the candidate filing deadline (March 13), and 10 months before the primary election (June 23).

So, plenty of time, right? A candidate could hypothetically wait until next March 13 to get in the race.

In many years of watching politics in Utah, I’ve never had a candidate say he or she got into a race too early. But I’ve had numerous candidates say they got in too late and didn’t have time to create the organization they needed or make their case to voters.

Getting in early makes great sense. But it depends on what “getting in” means. Smart candidates start early, but do a lot of hard work mostly behind the scenes. A big public announcement means a candidate needs to maintain momentum and improve in the polls or pundits will say the campaign peaked too early and is fading.

Campaigns face myriad tasks that can be started early (while being sure to comply with campaign finance reporting requirements). Smart candidates meet with opinion leaders and policymakers all across the state, going to their homes and places of business. That’s a lot of travel and wearing out the shoe leather.

Organizing the signature-gathering process to get on the ballot is a large task requiring managerial skills. Organizing a stellar ground game that’s ready to roll at the right time takes an enormous amount of work. It’s a daunting and lengthy process to recruit loyal campaign leaders in every county, legislative district and voting precinct in the state. Training these supporters to lead mini-campaigns in their districts needs a long lead time.

Putting together a clean and usable database with voters, supporters, and key leaders is critically important for campaign communications and get-out-the-vote efforts. A detailed fundraising plan with a comprehensive list of prospects and which supporters will contact them is a crucial task that will continue throughout the campaign. Developing in-depth position papers on key issues is also on the early-campaign task list.

These things take a lot of time and an immense amount of work. No one can pull them off in a couple of months. A successful campaign consists of a million little things, each of which seems inconsequential, but in aggregation make the difference between winning and losing.

So it makes sense to start very early. But when to begin the public part of the campaign is a different question. Like a football or basketball game, campaigns are all about momentum and peaking at just the right time. It takes a lot of creativity to maintain voter interest for numerous months.