11/25/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

When Considering a Presidential Bid, When Does 'No' Mean 'Yes'?


U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) insists that she "is not running for President" and maintains: "I pledge to serve out my term." Yet few political observers take her comments seriously. In fact, a grassroots movement "Ready for Warren" is forging full-steam ahead to encourage her to run for President.

In American politics, it is kosher for a candidate to repeatedly deny interest in the Presidency and to even issue categorical statements that he/she will not run for President, then subsequently reverse course. Ironically, some politicians even strategize about a potential presidential run after appearing at an event where they double down on their denial of interest.

When a potential presidential candidate answers the question in a non-declarative way, such as "I am not running for President" or "I have no plans to run," it is often interpreted as a "non-denial denial." The press and supporters of the potential candidate extrapolate from that statement that the candidate is leaving the door open. This is the case with Elizabeth Warren. She said she "is not running for President." She did not say that under no circumstance would she run. This is a very different statement.

The art of leaving the door open to a potential run is not a novelty. In 1884, there was an active effort by some Republican Party activists to draft former Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman to seek the Republican nomination for President. Sherman stated definitively: "I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected." This unequivocal language left no wiggle room for Sherman to explore a candidacy. This absolute language is today called a "Shermanesque statement." When an individual says he/she will not run for a certain office, reporters often ask if the candidate will make a "Shermanesque statement" that they will not run.

A great example of Shermanesque language was seen in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson, after winning the New Hampshire Presidential Primary with an underwhelming 49.4% of the vote, and polls showing him behind U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, announced to a stunned nation: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

Today, however, even a politician speaking in such absolutist language does not necessarily quell speculation of a potential candidacy. It is an odd game where politicians are willing to mislead about their intentions, yet rarely accrue any electoral repercussions. Even when the candidate actually means he/she is not running, they are often not believed. In 2010, speculation of a Presidential candidacy by New Jersey Governor Chris Christy did not cease even after he told a reporter: "Short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running."

There are a litany of examples of Presidential candidates who originally pledged not to run, then broke that promise. In 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was asked if he would run for the Republican Presidential nomination that year. His answer was "Absolutely not." Yet just months later, with polls showing he would do better against the Democratic Presidential candidates than the front-runner, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Rockefeller announced his candidacy stating: "By taking this course at this time I feel I can best serve my country." Rockefeller lost the nomination to Nixon but his statement that he would "absolutely not" seek the Presidency was a non-issue.

More recently, the day after being elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in November of 2004, Barack Obama said: "I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office in four years, and my entire focus is making sure that I'm the best possible senator on behalf of the people of Illinois." Yet Obama supporters never took him at his word, and many of his Senate colleagues urged him to run. In February of 2007, he announced his candidacy for President. Obama's prior "unequivocal" statement did not hurt him.

When ambitious upper-level elected officials seek re-election to their current position prior to a Presidential election, they are often dogged with the question of whether they promise to serve out their full terms or seek the Presidency part way through their turn. In response, candidates often resort to rhetorical gymnastics to give the impression they will serve out their full term, without stating so unequivocally. In an October gubernatorial debate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, running for re-election, was asked if he would serve out his full term. Walker, answered: "My plan is, if the people of the state of Wisconsin elect me on November 4th is to be here for four years." Five days after winning re-election, Walker, who was widely believed to have harbored Presidential ambitions, told Chuck Todd of NBC's Meet the Press: "I said my plan was for four years ... but certainly I care deeply about my state and country."

Two prominent governors with Presidential ambitions who were facing a tough re-election bid were forced to pledge to serve out their full terms and to do so in non-nebulous terms. The first was Bill Clinton. In 1990, Clinton was asked in a debate with Republican Sheffield Nelson if he pledged to serve out his full term as Arkansas Governor. Clinton responded: "You bet." However, after easily beating Nelson, Clinton met with Arkansas voters the next year and asked to be released from that pledge. He eventually defied the pledge and declared his Presidential candidacy.

The one recent Presidential candidate whose broken pledge to not run for President and to serve out his term as governor seriously damaged his Presidential candidacy was Pete Wilson, who sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1996. In 1994, when California Governor Pete Wilson ran for re-election, he promised his constituents that he would not run for President in 1996, declaring definitively: "I'll rule it out." However, just a year later, Wilson broke that pledge. At a press conference announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Wilson said of his pledge: "When I said it, I meant it."

In Wilson's case, the pledge became his Achilles heal. Two of his Republican opponents pounced on Wilson's broken pledge. Nelson Warfield, the spokesman for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), compared Wilson's pledge to Clinton's pledge in 1990, chiding Wilson as "a politician who began his campaign for President the same way Bill Clinton did, breaking his pledge to serve out a full term as governor. Wilson responded: "I was not in any way expecting that I would be standing here talking to you about running for president. At that time, there were a number of people who have my admiration who have since taken themselves out of the presidential sweepstakes: Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Bill Bennett, and Dan Quayle.'' Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander focused radio advertisements directly at Wilson. In the advertisement, an announcer exclaims: "If we can't trust Pete Wilson on that, we can't trust him on anything." Wilson's candidacy soon fizzled.

Potential Presidential candidates are rarely taken at their word when they disclaim interest in the Presidency. It becomes a game. News reporters try to goad them into making a definitive statement that they will not run for President. Presidential candidates who use non-declaratory language in disclaiming a potential Presidential candidacy send signals to supporters and potential benefactors that they are seriously weighing a presidential candidacy. Even after a potential candidate says with absolute certainty that he will not run, many do not believe him or her. With the exception of Pete Wilson, one would be hard pressed to find presidential candidates whose past denials actually had deleterious effects on their presidential candidacies.