November 8, 2013
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie exits a polling station after casting his vote during the New Jersey governor election in Mendham Township, New Jersey, November 5, 2013. Christie was poised on Tuesday to win re-election by a landslide, the latest polls show, a first step on what is expected to be a far bumpier path in his likely bid for the White House in 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie exits a polling station after voting on Nov. 5. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Okay, it’s still early in the presidential election cycle, but it’s not that early; the invisible primary has been going on for at least a year now. And it’s time for everyone to get this right: There’s no reason for us to pretend that candidates who are obviously running for president are presidential candidates.

Again, I’ll use Josh Putnam’s excellent way of putting it: Whether or not the various candidates will be running in 2016, many of them right now are running for 2016.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example. He’s running! Right now! He may have reasons for pretending he hasn’t decided yet, anything from legal restrictions on campaign finance to political sensibilities that he may not want to offend, but we don’t have to play along. He’s running. So is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). So is, well, any candidate making appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.

On the Democratic side, it’s a little trickier. Hillary Clinton is, for the most part, not doing any overt campaigning. But that’s probably because she doesn’t have to, given her particular position. What we can say is that she’s doing all the things she needs to do at this stage if she wants to be running in 2016 — and by that standard, yeah, it’s okay to say that she’s running. At least for now.

This isn’t just semantics. Those of us who talk about the campaign have an obligation to tell the truth about it, and the truth is that the campaign is well underway. Which includes, yes, candidates. After all, if party actors are right now making decisions that will affect the nomination race — and they are — then that should be reported. But it’s impossible to talk sensibly about what’s happening if we all conspire with the candidates to pretend they haven’t decided yet.

Of course, some of those running will drop out. Some will will drop after failing to raise enough money or find enough backers to make a nomination plausible — and they may realize that far before the Iowa caucuses, and even before the first debates in spring or summer 2015. Others may simply decide they don’t have what Walter Mondale called the “fire in the belly” for it, at least not in this cycle. That doesn’t mean they weren’t actively running before they made that choice.

At any rate, we might as well tell the truth about this stuff. Politicians who visit Iowa and New Hampshire, give speeches on national issues and otherwise act like presidential candidates are presidential candidates. So let’s start calling them what they are.