January 10, 2013
Paul Ryan
Rep. Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Paul Ryan earned a little attention today for … saying nothing about his plans for 2016. Specifically, when asked if he was running for president, Ryan said he’s “decided not to decide.

I have no idea what Ryan will do in the future, but it’s a good excuse to remind everyone not to take these “running for president” pronouncements at all literally. Plenty of candidates run for the presidency ahead of the primary and caucus season without ever making a formal declaration. And there are some such as Rick Perry, who, in the last election cycle, claimed for a long time that he wasn’t running … and yet he published a book full of candidate-like pronouncements on national issues. It sure looked suspiciously as if he were running the whole time.

Part of the confusion is that there’s no clear, definitive list of things that presidential candidates must do during the “invisible primary” period, which began two months ago and will continue on into 2015. Generally, candidates during this time gather resources — money, favorable publicity, endorsements — and begin to compete for support from various party actors. But not all candidates begin at the same starting line. Someone such as Ryan, a former vice presidential nominee, needs far less of an introduction to the general public, to key party leaders or to the media. Ryan could (formally) jump in very late and still be “taken seriously” — a meaningful concept that taps into ease of gathering further resources and therefore competing for party-actor support on even or better terms. 

How “invisible” the invisible primary is for any particular candidate may depend, in part, on how much visibility that candidate needs. So a solid front-runner — a Hillary Clinton, for instance, — may be quite active behind the scenes, lining up supporters who are ready to go when (or if) she gives the word, but it may be in her interest to actively avoid any current publicity. That wouldn’t, however, mean that she — or Ryan — wasn’t currently running for president.

On the other hand, Ryan (or Clinton) may honestly have not decided and is just enjoying the luxury of access to resources to defer the decision. It’s even possible that he has already decided not to run but finds it in his interest to maintain ambiguity, perhaps because he believes it increases his influence in the House. 

In other words, we really shouldn’t take any of these kinds of statements at face value. At best, they’re just another piece of evidence about what’s really going on. They certainly don’t tell us who is running now and who isn’t — let alone who will be running by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around.