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How to decide when to announce you're running for president

With Texas Sen. Ted Cruz formally announcing his bid for the White House Monday, the 2016 contest is now underway, and the declarations will roll out over the next few months, some sooner, some later. The question of when to announce may be related to what these soon-to-be candidates do for their day jobs.

The senators

Cruz is the first of a group of four Republican senators - the others are Florida's Marco Rubio, Kentucky's Rand Paul and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham - who are considering running for president. If Paul runs, he said he'll announce his candidacy on April 7, and it other senators could soon follow suit.

The timing is convenient for the sitting senators, who will be on congressional recess, from Mar. 30 to Apr. 10. Paul's planned date of Apr. 7 affords him the ability to plan a multi-state tour without worrying about missing work when Congress is in session. The break also coincides with the fundraising quarter that begins Apr. 1. Announcing their presidential campaigns close to the start of the quarter gives them nearly a full quarter of fundraising - time to get out early and boost numbers and support.

"There's no question about it: Putting up strong first quarter fundraising numbers behind an announcement can show a lot of strength and a solid foundation for forward momentum," GOP strategist Ron Bonjean told CBS News. "The most important issue...is the drive for cash, and how can [candidates] leverage their fundraising the best? It is so early most voters are not going to be paying attention almost two years away from an election, but they need to raise money."

But they're also already operating at a disadvantage compared to the potential candidates who do not hold federal office. Senators, as federal officeholders, are limited by campaign finance laws. Before they declare, they can raise $5,000 per donor for their leadership PACs, and they aren't allowed to raise unlimited money for super PACs. So, for instance, at this moment, if Sen. Rand Paul and former Governor Jeb Bush are at a party talking to a donor, Paul can hit up the donor for $5,000 for his leadership PAC, while Jeb Bush -- as long as he is not a formal candidate -- can ask for $5 million for his super PAC.

Once senators declare, they can solicit can solicit individual contributions of up to $2,700 per person per election cycle (the primary and general elections are considered separate) to their campaign committees. If federal candidates or officeholders are raising money for super PACs working on their behalf, they cannot legally ask for more than the federal contribution limits, and they can't raise any money from corporate or labor sources.

For Cruz, there was an extra imperative to getting in early.

"If he didn't do it now he could be left behind in the dust," Bonjean said. "Sen. Ted Cruz is trying to lock up the evangelical vote and get ahead of the other Republicans" like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Another GOP strategist, John Feehery added, "It's never a bad thing to be first either because you get all that notoriety." The ones who follow "won't get nearly as much notoriety as Cruz did."

The governors

Without the natural breaks of the congressional calendar, governors are more attuned to what's happening in their home states, as they consider the timing of their entrance onto the presidential stage. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said he'd like to wrap up the ongoing legislative session and budget battles in his state before he finalizes his announcement plans, so he's looking at some time in June.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also pondering a bid, is no longer totally enveloped in the fallout from the closure of certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge from 2013. But he's not entirely in the clear either: the state legislature has not yet wrapped up its investigation, nor have federal prosecutors who appear to be taking a deeper look at his gubernatorial and campaign offices.

"He's probably trying to figure out if he's weathered all the storms," Feehery said. "I think he needs to kind of get more positive news going his way."

Although governors have limits on how much they can raise for their state campaigns, they have more flexibility to raise money for their federal super PACs or political groups like 527s than the senators do. As long as they are not running for president and claim to not even be considering it, they can solicit mostly unlimited donations and corporate money. From that perspective, waiting can have its benefit.

But Bonjean cautions that's not always the best strategy, saying that waiting can be "dangerous."

"We're in this new environment where we haven't been before and there is a race for money," he said. Other governors who have toyed with a presidential bid, like Indiana's Mike Pence and Ohio's John Kasich, might want to hurry up and make a decision.

The has-beens

Those out of office, people like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Santorum and others, have a good deal more flexibility and are more sensitive to the political landscape for their timing.

According to Bonjean, candidates could decide to formally enter the race when another would-be or actual candidate makes a mistake, they feel a lull in the action, or have the sense that voters are looking for an alternative. They could also be looking for missteps by incumbent president or the presumed nominee on the other side of the aisle.

"There are all kinds of reasons why candidates may decide to wait this out a little bit more because it is pretty early," he said.

And for a candidate like Bush with impressive fundraising prowess, there's actually incentive to wait as long as possible to get into the race.

The would-be candidates who are not in office can spend the months beforehand asking donors to contribute far more to the coffers of their super PACs - millions of dollars. Bush dipped a toe in the race early by announcing that he was considering a presidential bid. It was a way to scare off other Republicans who might create stiff competition and to start locking down the donors from whom he can now raise vast sums of money in the weeks or months before he tells the Federal Election Commission (FEC) he is officially running for president.

The former governor is testing the campaign finance rules in a way that no other presidential candidate has. Even though Bush has given nearly every indication that he is running for president, the fact that he has not formally declared means he can continue raising unlimited mounts of money for his super PAC, Right to Rise, he can keep coordinating with his super PAC.

Once Bush decides to declare he's running for president, he can no longer directly control his super PAC or directly raise money for it. At that point, he would transfer it to someone else. At that point, he will also then be be subject to the election rules governing the other declared candidates.

Lawrence Noble, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC general counsel, also noted that by delaying a formal candidacy, candidates like Bush and Clinton can hold off on giving the public more specific information about their financial information until they are ready to tackle all questions - something senators and governors are already doing.

"If you're not a federal office holder," Noble said, "then the longer you hold off announcing, the longer you're holding off filing a financial disclosure report."

For candidates like Bush or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the financial disclosures could raise questions they are not yet ready to tackle.

Bush's strategy could backfire, though. One possibility Noble raised is that declared candidates have the moral high ground to raise questions about Bush's pre-presidential fundraising operation.

"You may see them turn on somebody like Jeb Bush," Noble said.

The calculus for Clinton is a little bit different. While Republicans race to distinguish themselves amid what's likely to become a crowded primary field, she has the only name in the Democratic bullpen, at this point, that registers more than a blip in early primary polls.

Clinton may eventually have to face a credible competitor for the Democratic nomination - former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are making noises about running. But right now, Clinton has virtually frozen the field, cornering the Democratic Party's fundraising apparatus and enlisting top-flight campaign talent to prepare for a bid.

That means Clinton has more flexibility than most in deciding when to make her bid official. She's expected to raise gobs of money no matter when she declares, she doesn't have a day job that requires her more immediate attention, and she doesn't have a crowded field of competitors driving her to get an early start on courting voters.

The factors weighing most heavily on Clinton's timing, therefore, are not logistical, but political. By delaying her official announcement, Clinton can keep herself out of the intense fray of a campaign for that much longer. When she declares, the thinking goes, she'll immediately be thrown into the daily news cycle, pressed for responses on every issue du jour and elevating herself as a target for GOP attacks. If she waits, she can let the Republicans spend their time attacking each other.

On the other hand, as the recent fracas surrounding her use of a private email server as secretary of state has demonstrated, Clinton can't avoid the circus even if she tries. By making her bid official, some believe, Clinton could exert a greater degree of control over the narrative, proactively shaping her coverage with campaign appearances and platform statements instead of being forced into a reactive posture every time some new story rocks her boat.

Declaring earlier might also help Clinton prevent any of her Democratic challengers from gathering steam. Those rivals "are now starting to get elevated a little bit," said Bonjean. "It would be wiser for Hillary to launch sooner rather than later because this state of limbo is creating fatigue among the left."

"The longer she stays quiet, the more likely it is that her progressive critics will grow louder, arguing that Clinton's expecting a royal coronation, rather than a Democratic nomination contest," added Lara Brown, a professor of political management at George Washington University, in a piece for U.S. News and World Report. While Clinton's team is keeping any final decision on timing under wraps, she's expected to clearly signal her intent to run sometime in April.

Other candidates who don't get the press attention of Bush or Clinton may need to jump in the race earlier for a publicity bump. Plus, there are precious few talented political operatives left in Iowa and New Hampshire that haven't been snapped up by campaigns in waiting.

"When different candidates are putting together their infrastructure, many of them are recruiting staffers and setting up offices across the states before they announce," Bonjean said. "That's a good idea, get your network started before you launch so you don't have to be rushing to catch up."

CBS News Senior Political Editor Steve Chaggaris contributed to this report.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.