Time magazine announced that likely contenders for the papacy included August Hlond of Gniezno-Poznań, Karl Joseph Schulte of Cologne, the Curia veteran Eugène-Gabriel-Gervais-Laurent Tisserant, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza of Venice, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Eugenio Pacelli, a longtime diplomat in the service of the Holy See. The prospect of a non-Italian pope for the first time since Pope Adrian VI in 1522 was considered more likely than in previous conclaves. On 13 February, The New York Times dismissed the idea of a non-Italian given the current state of international hostilities, though it thought Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve of Quebec the least objectionable to the contending powers. It discounted Pacelli since there was no precedent for the election of the Secretary of State, and precedent argued against the election of any member of the Curia as well as three key Italians who were members of religious orders. The five Italians remaining were Alessio Ascalesi of Naples, Giovanni Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano of Bologna, Luigi Lavitrano of Palermo, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Elia dalla Costa of Florence. By 20 February the paper found greater interest in the curial cardinals, Francesco Marmaggi, Massimo Massimi, and Luigi Maglione.
Pacelli was heavily favored among the cardinals to win. Pius XI had hinted that he favored Pacelli as his successor. On 15 December 1937, during his last consistory, Pius XI strongly hinted to the cardinals that he expected Pacelli to be his successor, saying "He is in your midst." He had previously been quoted as saying: "When today the Pope dies, you'll get another one tomorrow, because the Church continues. It would be a much bigger tragedy, if Cardinal Pacelli dies, because there is only one. I pray every day, God may send another one into one of our seminaries, but as of today, there is only one in this world."
Like Pius X, Pius XI had been a blunt-spoken, no-nonsense pontiff. Assembling in 1939 as the outbreak of hostilities that became World War II was widely anticipated, the cardinals turned to a soft-spoken diplomat.