PARK CITY, Utah -- At this time in the last presidential election cycle, top donors for Mitt Romney were quietly building the invisible network that would vault him to the nomination and raise more than $1 billion for his 2012 effort. Nothing like that is happening this year, as the 2016 contest looms.
While a few potential presidential candidates have met with major party donors over the last year -- and five of them mingled informally last week with potential bundlers at Mr. Romney's annual three-day political retreat in Park City -- a number of donors say they are surprised that their phones haven't been ringing.
"Usually people get out early. But it's not happening," said Al Montna of Yuba City, Calif., a rice farmer who was an early member of Mr. Romney's 2012 finance network. And in many cases, donors here in Park City said they were fine with that -- because they are in no rush to take sides.
Donors "want to make the right choice," Mr. Montna said. "It's a very important time. People want to be successful, and I think that's why they are waiting to see what's going to develop."
The early fundraising vacuum is being driven in part by Republicans' intensive focus on winning back the U.S. Senate in 2014 and by quirks in the 2016 GOP field.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is holding off on a decision whether to run, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is pinned down by investigations into his administration, delaying any moves to lock down donors. Sen. Rand Paul is among the most organized of the would-be candidates but lacks natural ties to establishment donors. The rest of the candidates still are viewed as the second string, making their future organizing efforts more important but more difficult as well.
That stands in stark contrast to the last two cycles, when Mr. Romney's campaign already was locking down state and regional finance organizations and lining up early donations.
That money not only gave Mr. Romney positive early attention but also helped him build the team that assembled his ground forces in crucial primary states and mastered the arcane laws of ballot access that tripped up other candidates. In 2016, Republican candidates' need to create a financial juggernaut may be even more important because of the potential fundraising machine that would be in the hands of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, were she to decide to run.
In the absence of early organizing for a presidential candidate, some donors have turned their efforts toward raising money for the party's data and ground games -- which were no match for the Democrats in 2012 -- as well as giving to super-PACs that are active in congressional races this year.
Ray Washburne, a major Romney bundler who now is the Republican National Committee's finance chairman, says every room of donors greets him with queries about who the GOP nominee will be in 2016. He says he often urges them to not to "take their eye off the prize -- and the prize is winning the Senate."
In such an uncertain midterm year, Mr. Washburne said, there could be retribution for a presidential candidate or major donors who divert attention to 2016.
"Believe me, word gets around real quick; it is not a big community of major donors," he said. "So I think most of them are really laying low, at least until this fall."
But Spencer Zwick, a former Romney finance chairman, says that while many of the potential 2016 candidates are helping midterm nominees raise money for their races -- as Mr. Romney did before his -- he doesn't see "their own organizations developing."
Mr. Zwick added that he could not think of a past presidential candidate who had leaped into the race without a strong organization and "been able to coalesce all the money around him or her."