The 2012 election season has officially begun.

For those of you wondering, yes it’s still March 2011. You’re not misreading the calendar, I promise.

The search for the next Republican presidential candidate is in full swing. Between CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference, held this year from Feb. 10-12) and this past Monday’s forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, potential contenders have come out of the woodwork.

Speculation as to who’s going to run ranges from familiar faces in the G.O.P. like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to lesser-known actors, such as Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer. Although none have officially announced their candidacy, it’s clear that voters, especially in the early states (Iowa, for example) are anxious to meet the candidates.

But why is this beginning so early? It’s only the first quarter of 2011, and with the first primaries not taking place until early 2012, why are we already concerned with who will run?

The way our election system works now, money is fundamental to a campaign’s success, especially in the race for the nomination, if for no other reason than that it allows candidates to maintain efforts over a great deal of the country and move around freely. These campaigns are long and very expensive. In order to stand a chance, fundraising in the pre-primary season is essential. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the pre-primary season determines which candidates are viable in the long run.

Is the drawing out of this process sensible? Perhaps not. It seems as though we’re investing an awful lot of money and time into donating funds and scrutinizing political actors who haven’t even publicly decided that they wish to seek the nomination.

On the other hand, this might be a good thing. The only people who are really involved in this pre-primary race are the party faithful and political media, so it’s not as though the entire nation is spending its time on the issue. In addition, the more we analyze potential candidates, the more we know about them. This could lead to a more informed electorate in the long run.

It’s typical for those considering running to establish an exploratory committee more than a year before the election. These committees seek to determine how much money can be raised, as well as the odds of winning in the primaries, and the candidate doesn’t have to publicly commit themselves to running. These are, however, a mask for potential candidates to cloak their campaigns in, but the public is often not aware of them.

It seems as though the people are demanding more of G.O.P. presidential hopefuls right now than is typical at this point. Why is this? Could it be a sign of the success the Tea Party has had in its efforts to energize the right wing? Perhaps it’s a function of dissatisfaction with the current administration and political climate. While it’s likely we’ll never figure out exactly what is causing this push, we must be aware of it as well as its influence on the election process.

Practical or not, it appears as though this extended campaign season is inevitable. Because of the recent emphasis on the pre-primary season, anybody considering running has no choice but to play along if they want to stand a chance. The only thing we can do is sit back and watch it all unfold.