Here's what you should know about how presidential campaigns really work

From the outside, the 2020 presidential campaign appears to be just getting started. Democratic candidates are lining up to announce their candidacies and the media is covering their early events. But behind the scenes, things are far more developed: Most of the candidates have already finalized their campaign plans and are well into implementing them.

I know, because just over four years ago, in November of 2014, I was in Miami giving a PowerPoint presentation for two people: Jeanette and Marco Rubio.

The presentation had 101 slides and the culmination of over a year’s worth of work. It was an in-depth look at what the next two years of their life could look like if Rubio decided to run for president. Slide by slide, it detailed what it would take to mount a campaign for the presidency of the United States in 2016.

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The presentation included everything from a breakdown of how many nights Rubio would need to spend away from home campaigning (229 nights in 2015 alone) to how much money we projected needing to win the primary (we projected $65 million to win and we ended up raising over $52 million). We projected how many votes we needed to get in every early state and a budget to get through the Super Tuesday primaries in March 2016.

We used our data analytics team to project everything from which TV stations were most efficient to reach likely Republican voters, to the location of our national headquarters based on travel time and cost. (We picked Washington, D.C. over Miami in large part because D.C.’s three airports offered faster and cheaper flights to early primary states.) We identified potential staff members for all of the senior jobs and lined up potential finance committee members and county chairs to run our field program. We even built out a media monitoring structure that would allow us to track media impressions for all of the candidates on the target universes.

Before putting together Rubio’s campaign plan, we spent countless hours researching historical data of past winning campaigns. We included slides on when previous candidates filed their presidential committees (McCain was the earliest in recent history when he filed in November of 2006 for the 2008 campaign) to the number of days they’d spent campaigning in each state and how many staffers they had on the ground there. We even looked into how many votes every candidate who had been in the Senate had missed (in 2008 Obama’s Senate voting percentage was 36 percent and McCain only made 20 percent).

Although I was delivering the presentation, it was the work product of half a dozen people who had their first serious meeting about the topic a year earlier.

Of course, as it turns out, our plan was not the winning one. But no doubt about it, every candidate looking at running in 2016 had some version of a plan at that point in time -- even Donald Trump. It may or may not have been in writing, or as full of data points, but Donald Trump had been publicly talking about running for president since 1987, and even announced as a Reform Party Candidate for president in 2000 before dropping out. He definitely had a plan, even if he never fully shared it with anyone.

In 2007, Mitt Romney shared with me with something the late Sen. Bob Bennett once told him: You can wait as long as you’d like to decide not to run for president. But if you want to be in a position to make that decision, you need to plan like you’re going to run.

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As you read this article today, every credible presidential candidate is beginning to execute their campaign plan. For example: One of the first very public acts of the 2020 race was Elizabeth Warren’s releasing her genetic testing in a campaign video back in October. It’s definitely not a conventional way to start your campaign but it was clear that her team planned it out far in advance. Before taking the test, or producing a video, they were almost certainly poll testing the potential impact of doing so.

The planning period is over. Now is the time to climb in the ring. The PowerPoint presentations have been delivered. The only thing left is for the candidates and their teams to unveil those plans to the public. Once they announce, the other candidates, the media and the voters can all weigh in. Good luck, candidates. But more importantly, good luck, America.