An invisible primary is said to begin when a candidate formally announces their plans to run for office.
It comes to a close when the actual primary season begins.
The invisible primary is a testing-ground for candidates and their advance teams. It’s an opportunity to find out how much support they can gather before the real primary is held. In fact, the invisible primary can often make or break candidates – candidates who don’t get enough shows of support during the invisible primary often end up bowing out of the race, sometimes before the primary season even begins.
A key example of that in the 2020 presidential race would be Sen. Cory Booker. The New Jersey senator dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 13, 2020, almost a month ahead of the Iowa caucus. Booker had been struggling in the polls for some time; he also wasn’t able to raise enough money to keep his campaign going and to maintain his reputation as a serious candidate.
The invisible primary is often referred to as the “money primary.” That’s because pundits and party bosses are closely watching to see how effectively each candidate can fund raise.
Critics of the invisible primary say that effectively, it forces candidates to curry favor with the most wealthy and powerful Americans. Big donors, as well as well-connected fundraisers (“bundlers”) have a disproportionate role in picking candidates.
On the right, wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, or Sheldon Adelson, have traditionally held a great deal of sway.
On the left, prominent fundraisers include George Soros and the Facebook founder Denis Moskowitz.
In recent years, more and more presidential candidates are, themselves, extremely wealthy men who have the capacity to fund their own campaigns.
This has arguably changed the whole nature of the invisible primary, and may have lessened the power traditionally held by wealthy donors and fundraisers.
Uses of “invisible primary”
FiveThirtyEight (November 15, 2022): “This is one of the more significant sources of uncertainty for the 2024 GOP primary — will DeSantis (or another candidate) emerge from 2023’s ‘invisible primary’ as the dominant non-Trump candidate, or will the field still be muddled?”
Washington Post (October 17, 2022): “In a normal presidential election cycle, we would be about to hit the two-year mark in the ‘invisible primary.’ That’s the period before voters get involved, in which candidates seek the support of key party players. That process usually begins immediately after the previous presidential election.”
Politico: “In 2000, George W. Bush, a big-state governor fresh off of a smashing reelection, consolidated widespread support from elite donors and elected officials during the so-called invisible primary period.”
Washington Post: “One reason is that we’re in the ‘invisible primary’ stage of the process, in which candidates vie to capture the support of influential party figures, including partisan media. Longshot candidates need to find some way to convince those party influencers to take them seriously, and one way is to stay in the news.”