In a Nov. 23 CNN survey, Mitt Romney led 16 potential GOP presidential candidates with 20%, followed by Dr. Ben Carson at 10%, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 9% and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 8%. The other 12 names garnered between less than 1% and 7%. That the front-runner is not even running shows polls now reflect little more than name recognition. It will be next fall before surveys start depicting the real shape of the GOP race.
However, there are invisible primaries under way. Here is how candidates are faring in these sub-rosa matchups:
The first of these contests was about making the election of GOP candidates in 2014 a priority—and not about their own personal ambition. Four presidential prospects did well. Gov. Christie raised $106 million as Republican Governors Association chairman to help elect a record number of GOP state chief executives. Mr. Bush raised bundles in Florida for competitive Senate candidates and campaigned extensively across the country.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was seemingly everywhere, encouraging libertarians not to throw their votes away. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) raised considerable money for some Senate candidates and ran independent expenditure efforts for a few.
For other presidential hopefuls, the more time they spent in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the more self-centered they appeared to be. Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) spent 28 days in the three states; Sen. Paul 23 days; Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) 20 days; and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) 19 days. Their efforts may not be too useful. Most savvy Republicans in these early states want to see the entire field engaged before signing on for a candidate.
A second invisible primary centers on developing a message. Two Wisconsinites did particularly well in 2014: Gov. Scott Walker issued a remarkably readable book, as did Rep. Paul Ryan , who has done the most to set a positive GOP agenda during the Obama era.
Mr. Paul’s message is sometimes incoherent but he is reaching out to nontraditional constituencies, which Republicans applaud. Mr. Rubio delivered seven substantive speeches about strengthening the American dream, quietly collecting experts and influential big thinkers to help prepare the speeches and turn the ideas into legislation. This is smart: Too many candidates spend too little time on issues and end up lacking substance.
There’s also the money primary. Messrs. Christie and Bush are best positioned to have big bundler networks raising money at the $2,600 maximum. For their re-elections, Gov. Walker raised $25 million, Ohio Gov. John Kasich raised $20 million and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder took in $12.5 million. All three would be competitive if those donors support presidential bids. Governors, however, cannot accept donations from Wall Street Republicans who do business with their state pension and other funds.
Mr. Rubio has raised $30.2 million since 2009, with $3.2 million cash on hand. Mr. Cruz has raised $18.1 million, with $1.4 million on hand. Mr. Ryan raised $8.8 million this cycle, with $2.9 million on hand. All three can transfer these balances to a presidential campaign. Mr. Paul has raised $13.6 million since 2009, with $2.9 million on hand—but he’s simultaneously running for re-election in 2016 and not likely to transfer his cash.
Seven candidates formed federal PACs, mostly to broaden donor bases. Only Mr. Rubio ($3.7 million) and Mr. Ryan ($3.2 million) raised more than $2 million.
Dr. Carson may have the most impressive list of new small donors. The Draft Carson Committee (with which he legally could not be involved) used his name to raise $11.1 million, spent $10.2 million (92%) on overhead and devoted $531,788 (5%) to supporting midterm candidates. American Legacy PAC (Dr. Carson heads its anti-ObamaCare project) used his signature to help raise $6.5 million, and spent $5.9 million (91%) on overhead and gave $140,090 (2%) to candidates. If Dr. Carson runs, his campaign presumably can use those donor names.
The next contest is for staff. Each GOP hopeful has a team that won their last race, but all of them need to broaden their squads for the gigantic task of contesting the nomination. This is an early leadership test. Can a candidate recruit, train and lead a team of many strangers that can organize critical states and weather the tough patches that lie ahead?
The winners of these invisible primaries are most likely to be contenders in the real primaries that begin in 14 months.
A version of this article appeared December 4, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Who's Winning The GOP's Invisible Primaries and online at WSJ.com.