She'll let us know. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
She'll let us know. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Can we please retire the “will he or won’t he?” (or, more often this time around, “will she or won’t she?”) question about presidential candidates?

To cite Josh Putnam again, the media needs to understand the difference between running for 2016 and running in 2016.

What the press should be doing is reporting on whether candidates are currently running for 2016, and how those campaigns are going.

The reason is that candidates don’t actually know whether they will be running in 2016. I’m sure that in April 2010 Tim Pawlenty thought he would be running in 2012. It didn’t work out that way. Or, consider the less-obvious case of Haley Barbour, who did campaign-like things for a while and then dropped out in April 2011. Perhaps, unlike Pawlenty, Barbour never fully committed to a 2012 run. It seems more likely, however, that he was interested at some level and that, based on the response to his early campaign, he decided the chances of winning weren’t high enough.

“Will she or won’t she” is inadequate because it doesn’t capture what actually happens in the invisible primary. Here’s the long version of the argument.

I’m confident that Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and at least six dozen others would accept the nomination if it was handed to them. I’m equally confident that only a handful of the politicians who see a president when they look in the mirror will be contesting the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

Each of the dozens of politicians who sees him or herself as president has a personal threshold for the risk they would be willing to take as an active candidate. They then (implicitly, if not explicitly) calculate the odds of winning, and if their chances are better than that threshold, they begin a campaign. They constantly reassess their chances, and choose whether to continue. As a practical matter, those reassessments are probably more conscious when there’s a major campaign event (a campaign finance deadline, an important straw poll or endorsement) that appears to revise the odds of winning. Such assessments also are more likely when the candidacy hits a major on-ramp, such as the perceived need to hire staff, or increase campaign appearances or, eventually, to enter primaries.

Those on-ramps differ for different candidates. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t have to do anything more than hint that she’s interested. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, needs to do a lot more to impress party actors, which probably means trips to Iowa, raising money, making policy speeches, and meeting with important party and party-aligned leaders.

So there are at least three variables: how badly each candidate wants to run (or, to put it differently, the risk threshold she needs to exceed in order to remain in the race); how the candidate perceives the chances of winning; and what the candidate needs to do immediately to remain viable.

“Will she or won’t she?” garbles all of these considerations. It gets the tense wrong; the nomination campaign is now, not in the future. It implies a decision, rather than a risk calculation. It treats the decision to run as static, a one-time choice, when it’s dynamic. Most of all, it inverts the entire process, which involves the party winnowing out candidates, rather than waiting around for them to begin running.

I should mention that many candidates who are already running aren’t going to admit it. Some may have a re-election campaign for their current office in 2014 and don’t want to tell their constituents that they have higher aspirations . Some may believe that there are strategic advantages to holding back a formal declaration, such as avoiding negative attacks; some may believe that by never admitting a longshot run, they can avoid putting an L on the scoreboard when they drop out. And then there are campaign regulations, which may restrict what early-cycle candidates can do. If none of that were true, we could just ask the candidates. But it is true, and it’s one area in which politicians certainly cannot be trusted.

So what we need from the press is solid reporting on what the current candidates are actually doing, as Robert Costa does here with Jeb Bush, and on what important party actors are thinking. Drop the “will he or won’t he?” questions.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net