Washington CNN  — 

So you want to run for president?

Before you buy that plane ticket to Iowa or craft your first campaign slogan, there are some crucial decisions to make first – and time is of the essence.

“If the past is any guide, potential candidates should be looking at an announcement or at least an exploratory committee sometime in the first quarter of 2019, which means that by now they should be fairly well along in their behind-the-scenes planning,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, political adviser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.

In that behind-the-scenes planning, the first step is getting buy-in from your family.

“This is a long, grueling process,” said Jake Oeth, a Des Moines-based Democratic political strategist and the Iowa director for the 2016 Martin O’Malley presidential bid. “However your lifestyle was is going to completely change.”

Then, it’s all about the money.

There’s a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to ensuring you have the resources to run. If you don’t come from a deep-pocketed personal background, figuring out how and when to line up the cash essential for a run has to happen quickly.

Why? Because campaign finance rules prevent fundraising for a campaign before you actually launch it.

“It’s a tricky spot,” Oeth said. “I remember from the O’Malley campaign, there was a period from when he was making the decision to run. You can’t raise money if you’re thinking about it … you can’t raise money for your campaign without being a declared candidate.”

Oeth estimated that it will take around $15 million spent across the early states to be competitive in 2020.

Once a candidate decides to run, they need to act fast, often tapping into an already established network of friends, family, and – most importantly – supporters. Often, that’s the donors who already pitched into the candidate’s campaigns for lower offices, or extensive mailing lists built over years through issue-based outreach.

That’s what makes this current window of time – the months following the midterm election – so crucial. The first quarter of 2019 (happening between January 1 and March 31) is a key fundraising window. Campaigns with lesser-known candidates will want to make a splash with an impressive early fundraising haul to be taken more seriously, so it’s much easier to pull off declaring sooner than later within that window to maximize the amount of first-quarter fundraising time.

“The ambitious ones had PACs that dispensed money and fundraised for their party during the midterms,” Fehrnstrom said. “Through that process, they should have built up some chits, brought on some key hires and started the process of networking with party leadership at the local level, particularly in the early voting states that are going to determine who has momentum. They should also have begun to form an idea of what their campaign leadership is going to look like, both nationally and in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

For candidates who have already decided to run, the process kicks in now.

“Each of the prospective campaigns are cobbling together the key components right now,” said Massachusetts-based Democratic fundraiser Sean Curran. “Most have a communications person, some have a finance asset on staff or on contract. These teams will grow quietly until disclosures are required for either an exploratory committee or a full-fledged Presidential campaign committee. Nobody is fully staffed right now, but most of the prospective campaigns have an idea about how they will fill out their teams regionally and by discipline.”

Then, of course, they start building a ground game in the early states.

Iowa comes first on the calendar.

“For anyone who is running right now, it’s just about putting those first feelers out and see what’s out there,” said Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. “They may have made the final decision to run. Just having conversations by testing the waters. Some come out here, some make phone calls, some looking for staff. It just depends on how far along they are.”

That type of ground game is critically important, because Iowa’s caucus process is more involved than just casting a ballot for someone.

“You’re asking someone to do more than just necessarily vote for you, (but to) in some ways go and stand in a room and defend you to their friends and neighbors,” Price said. “It’s a bigger ask. You really have to organize. You really have to build those relationships and connections with those caucus-goers. It’s really about retail.”

This year, Democrat John Delaney has charted a different course – in part because he’s already actually running for president. After announcing his intent to run for 2020 back in July 2017, the Maryland congressman has already spent more than a year and a half on the stump, working to build that connection on the ground. By January 1, Delaney will have between 25 and 30 staffers in Iowa in at least six cities – not to mention boots on the ground in New Hampshire as well.

And Delaney has already turned that time on the ground into hard numbers – a September 2018 Emerson College poll showed Delaney had a 79% name ID among registered Iowa voters.

But it stands to be seen what that will look like once more candidates make an official entry into the race. And John Davis, a senior adviser to Delaney’s presidential campaign, said they’ve been gearing up for this crucial window: The first quarter of 2019.

Delaney knows the landscape will be vastly different come spring 2019, and is preparing for the changing and rapidly expanding presidential field, Davis said. But one event on the calendar is a near-lock: a visit to the fairgrounds for one of Iowa’s marquee political events of the caucus season: the Iowa State Fair in August.

“It’s a great chance just to go and interact with people, and there’s a lot of classic Iowa events that take place there,” Price said.

Campaigns can count on more than 1 million visitors over the fair’s 10 days.

Plus, there are the all-important visuals, like “cooking a pork chop, seeing the biggest steer and butter cow. All the sorts of things that make for good images if you’re trying to show your connection to the state,” Price said.

All of that leading up to the very first votes of the 2020 presidential cycle, in Iowa’s caucuses on February 3, 2020 – just shy of 700 days from now.