Elizabeth Warren pledged last week to finish out her Senate term and pass on a 2016 run for the White House.
I have no idea whether Warren, D-Mass., has any intention of running for president, but we’re not going to learn anything from her claims to the contrary at this point. When it comes to presidential runs, watch what people do, not what they say.
That requires figuring out what each prospective candidate would be doing if she were in fact running. Sometimes that’s easy: Visits to Iowa and New Hampshire are a traditional, obvious giveaway. Sometimes it’s high-profile speeches. Sometimes it’s a book; that was the tip-off that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was running in the 2012 cycle despite multiple denials.
The point is that it may differ depending on the nomination-battle context, such as whether there is already a strong front-runner, and the prospective candidate’s situation (whether she already has national name recognition, whether she needs more of an introduction to important party actors, etc.).
The key is that the penalty for denying a White House run and then making one is approximately zero. Yet there may be perceived penalties for saying “I don’t know” or “yes,” even for candidates who at this point are definitely running. Prematurely declaring a run is a good way of raising expectations, which might be good for relatively obscure candidates, but that is often not what higher-profile candidates want. Or politicians just might find answering the question constantly an annoying distraction, and a clear, firm “No” is the best way to duck some of that. At least until the next candidate-like action, when it’s bound to start up again.
At this point, there’s an excellent chance that Warren herself has no idea whether she will be a candidate in 2016. But it’s clear that she has very little to lose by denying it now. There’ll be plenty of time to figure out what she’s up to.
Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.