“The answer is no,” Joe Biden told NPR in a November 2017 interview. “I have no plans on running in 2020.”
But Biden refused to entirely rule out the possibility of a presidential bid, telling NPR’s Michel Martin, “What people want me to say is that under no circumstances will I run. That would be a foolish thing to say.”
Biden, of course, is hardly the first politician to dismiss or evade such questions so far out from the next presidential election. Asked on “Meet The Press” in January 2006 whether he would run for president, eventual 2008 Democratic nominee Barack Obama said, “I will not.” And in April 2009, future 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney told the Deseret News, “[I’m] keeping the door open, but I’m just not walking through it. Time will tell what the future holds.”
Even former President Donald Trump won’t explicitly say whether he’s running in 2024. However, he’s clearly hinted that he’s open to the idea: “With your help, we will take back the House, we will win the Senate, and then, a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House,” Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, adding not so subtly, “And I wonder who that will be. I wonder who that will be. Who, who, who will that be, I wonder?”
This is all par for the course. It’s how the game of presidential ambition is played, so here’s a crash course in what to keep an eye on in this still incredibly early phase of the “invisible primary.”
Expect denials, some forthright … and some not so forthright.
Some rumored 2024 contenders have already ostensibly removed themselves from the presidential equation, such as Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rick Scott of Florida and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. “I’ve always said, Maria, that I’m not running for president,” Hawley told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo in late January. Scott also said in a Fox Business interview in December that he was “not planning to run.” And when Noem was asked last July if she had any interest in running, she said, “No, I do not,” stressing that she was excited to be back in South Dakota after spending eight years in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. House of Representatives. But as we saw with Biden or Obama, “no” could easily become “yes” by the spring of 2023 — if not much earlier.
In fact, don’t be surprised if all three start to leave a little more wiggle room in their answers à la Biden in 2017 or Romney in 2009. After all, other potential 2024 contenders have already signaled they’re open to the possibility. Those who ran in 2016, such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, have already offered very coy answers on whether they’ll run again. “I don’t know for sure. I’d hope to run again,” Cruz said last August, while Rubio said last month that he would “see what the future holds” and “cross that bridge” when he gets there. Others like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are waiting to see “what happens” after the 2022 midterms, when he’s up for reelection. Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, also urged patience, saying during a campaign trip in Iowa in late October that “there’s time to worry about ’24 in ’22.”
Remember, whether prospective candidates are outright denying they’re interested or saying “we’ll see,” this is all part of the presidential dance. Aspirants want to keep their cards close to their chest. There’s a reason former Maryland Rep. John Delaney was the only candidate to announce he was running for president in July 2017. He was a long shot and hoped to build a stronger national profile by announcing early. (It’s rare, but this can pay off in some cases. See businessman and now New York City mayor hopeful Andrew Yang.) By comparison, most serious 2020 contenders waited until 2019 to announce their candidacies, so we should expect the same in the run up to 2024. But just because most candidates will act noncommittal, that doesn’t mean they won’t still seek the limelight.
Media attention is important, but it has risks
Name recognition, or whether voters and the public writ large have heard of a candidate, is one of the most important ingredients in a presidential nomination contest. We’ve found that since the mid-1990s, the eventual nominee for each party was already pretty well known early in the election cycle (at least 80 percent of voters, on average, had heard of them more than a year out from the general election).1 That means interviews, articles citing them as presidential hopefuls — ahem, like this one — and coverage of hypothetical polls about the 2024 race all matter.
But at the same time, there’s such a thing as unwanted media attention (just ask Hillary Clinton about her emails). That’s why most candidates want to maintain a veil of uncertainty on whether they’re actually running. It keeps them in the driver’s seat. The media is interested in you, raising your national profile, but you’re not held to the same standard as an actual candidate.
Take Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Although she had been criticized for changing her ethnic identity from white to Native American for professional reasons — something she denied doing — long before she decided she was running for president, it wasn’t until she was a candidate that the media really dug into the story. Washington Post reporters obtained a copy of Warren’s registration card for the State Bar of Texas, which found she had identified as American Indian. Warren apologized for identifying as Native American, but the episode probably did cost her politically. Whereas presidential candidates often enjoy an announcement bump in the polls after entering the race, Warren didn’t experience one, and her poll numbers actually slid throughout January and February 2019, according to Morning Consult’s national polling average.
That’s why most rumored candidates are going to stick to fluffier media coverage now — if they can. They might put out a new book — a classic signal of presidential intent — or try to be featured in a glossy magazine cover story, which can provide opportunities for them to at least somewhat control the narrative.
There are electoral considerations, too
Candidates also often offer evasive answers because they have to prioritize (or at least look like they are prioritizing) their current political careers before they announce a 2024 presidential run. Take Abbott, Noem and Rubio. They’re all up for reelection in 2022, so they can’t have voters in their states think they’re just trying to hold onto their current office to use it as a stepping stone to the White House. Polls show that voters don’t generally want their public officials to run for president, period.
For instance, back in 2018 when Warren sought reelection to the Senate, 58 percent of Bay Staters told The Boston Globe/Suffolk University in September 2018 they didn’t want Warren to run for president. Understandably, Warren had said she planned to see out her six-year term if she won, only announcing her bid after she won. And even when reelection isn’t on the line, state voters tend to dislike the idea of their public officials running: In April 2015, 59 percent of Wisconsinites opposed GOP Gov. Scott Walker seeking the presidency, according to the Wisconsin Survey (he announced three months later), and in May 2017, 54 percent of New Jerseyans told Quinnipiac University that they didn’t think Democratic Sen. Cory Booker should run for the White House.
Now, we know we’ve painted a lot of these possible 2024 contenders as politically calculating and savvy, but some of them really don’t know yet whether they’ll run. As political scientists have found, politicians are more likely to seek higher office when they believe they have a good chance of winning. If it’s possible making a presidential run will hurt them politically and close off future opportunities, there’s a good chance they won’t run. Not to mention that, in the 2024 GOP primary, there’s the added wrinkle of whether Trump will run again, as that will likely affect at least some GOP aspirants’ chances of winning the nomination. Likewise, choosing not to challenge Trump could be helpful for maintaining support at home considering how strongly he still polls among the Republican base.
Keep an eye on what candidates are doing
By and large, though, potential 2024 GOP hopefuls are still positioning themselves as best they can for a run, so the most important thing to do at this stage is: Watch what they do, not what they say. Beyond media attention and book tours, there is a whole list of other actions that can tip us off. One classic indicator is a visit to states that vote early in the nomination process, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. So if you’re keeping an eye on that, note that Noem keynoted a Iowa GOP dinner in August 2020, while Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has already held a few events in New Hampshire. And even if a candidate hasn’t made an early-state trip yet, other activities in those states can signal interest. For instance, back in January 2020, Scott actually ran an ad in Iowa attacking Biden and Democratic-led impeachment efforts against Trump. We saw Rubio’s political action committee do something somewhat similar in 2014 ahead of his 2016 run, when it spent money on ads and robocalls to voters to support now-Sen. Joni Ernst in the state’s Senate contest.
Garnering speaking slots at big, high profile events like CPAC are a sign, too, of presidential ambition. So again, keep your eyes on Trump, Cruz, Hawley, Scott, Noem, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They all gave speeches at CPAC, which attracted days of national coverage and surely drove up their national profile, in addition to maybe helping them identify supporters and activists who could help with their future campaigns. Big, symbolic political actions over the next four years could sign-post a future campaign talking point, too, such as Hawley’s status as the senator who has opposed the most Biden Cabinet nominees. Or Hawley, Cruz and Scott’s decision to prove their fealty to Trump by voting to reject state election results during the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College votes following the insurrection at the Capitol.
We are way too far out from the 2024 GOP primary for top-tier potential candidates to declare their candidacies, but the takeaway is this: The 2024 presidential election began on Nov. 7, the day Biden was projected to win the presidency. So even if no one is raising their hand to run at this point, we’d advise you spend less time parsing their evasive answers and more time focusing on what they’re doing.
CORRECTION (March 8, 2021, 4:20 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sen. Josh Hawley was the lone senator to oppose every single one of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees. In fact, Hawley voted to confirm Cecilia Rouse as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.