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Decision for 2020 Democrats: Should They Get in the Race Early, or Really Early?

“I would not wait much longer,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of the political action committee Emily’s List and an early proponent of online fund-raising as Howard Dean’s national finance director. “If they’re going to run they’ve got to go. The money isn’t just going to come immediately.”

Supporters of Ms. Warren, who effectively pushed up the start date of the race with her surprise New Year’s Eve announcement, say her early entrance allowed unfettered political space for her message. But she has still faced fund-raising struggles, as Mr. Sanders — who poses perhaps her toughest competition for economic progressives — has raised far more money.

“Being first in has one downside: People can applaud your big bold ideas while also thinking, ‘I’d like to wait six months before picking a horse and making my first donation,’” said Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Ms. Warren.

Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and former mayor of San Antonio, who launched his exploratory committee more than two weeks before Ms. Warren, described his early start as a strategic choice to give himself the best shot at building a following against better-known and better-financed rivals.

“What I need is time. I need the fight to start earlier,” Mr. Castro said. “The earlier for me or anybody in my position starts, the better strategically.”

But some Democrats question whether the traditional rules of the so-called “invisible primary” — the pre-voting period when candidates rack up endorsements, donors and media attention — still apply. In 2015, President Trump entered the primaries in June, and Mr. Sanders at the end of April.

Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who is working for Mr. Hickenlooper, says the real sorting of the field will begin with the first primary debate in June, a potentially two-night event that she believes will have “off-the-chart” viewership.

“I just think all these traditional trappings of primary campaigns were upended in 2016 and are already being upended in 2020,” Ms. Greenberg said. “Nobody really knows what the rules are now.”

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