For 2020 Democrats, There’s a Lot of ‘Thinking About It’

Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas said Monday that he isn’t ruling out running for president in 2020, after months of insisting that he would not seek the office. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The would-be 2020 Democratic contenders could not be clearer: They are not running for president.

O.K., they are not actively running for president. Not currently, not at this very moment — which is to be spent with family, in solemn reflection about the nature of public service — running for president.

Anyway. Can they count on your support? Hypothetically, of course. Just in case. As they are not running for president.

Such is the state of the Democratic presidential primary field these days, with dozens of possible candidates who claim to be mulling, weighing, considering, wondering — while offering updates, with varying degrees of plausibility, on the intensity of their preparations.

Consider this a guide to how Democrats are communicating a desire to run without the fuss, commitment and risk of announcing it outright.

‘Just thinking’

It is a political season for double negatives: Almost no one is running for president now, but many, many people are not not running. And several have settled on a helpful construction to explain themselves: “We’re thinking.”

“We’re thinking about it,” Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said after his re-election victory in the midterms.

“We’re thinking through a number of things,” Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas told reporters, even more generally, in his native El Paso on Monday.

“I’m going to think about it,” former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, said Tuesday.

The advantages of this phrasing are manifest. It is both vague enough to avoid obligation if plans change and unsubtle enough to signal plainly to supporters and news outlets that a politician merits serious pre-consideration as a possible future president.

The plural “we” is useful, too, with its implied feedback from loved ones, for those worried that “I” might register as too self-involved — even for someone aspiring to the world’s most important job.

But when set against unequivocal denials, the squishiness of “thinking” can be stark.

“I am ruling it out,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said of a White House bid on Tuesday.

“There are no circumstances under which I will run,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeted days earlier. “Zero.”

A reporter asked if the percent chance was truly zero or a fraction that rounded to zero. “Absolute zero,” the senator said.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said he is “thinking” about a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

‘But you know…’

Those politicians blessed with swing-state addresses tend to make sure no one forgets it.

Mr. Brown’s allies are not saying that the nominee must come from Ohio, where a Democratic victory could seal the party’s electoral fortunes in 2020. But wouldn’t it be nice?

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — who has surprised some in Washington with hints of a presidential run after winning re-election — has likewise framed his own state as the map’s most essential.

“For a Democrat, if you lose Pennsylvania, it’s game over,” he told The Associated Press. “And I want to make sure that our nominee can win this state.”

A nominee, perhaps, like the one who won it by 13…

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