Wednesday, January 27, 2021

#InvisiblePrimary: Visible -- Hawley and Shermanesque/Sherman-ish Statements

Yesterday, Business Insider ran with a scoop that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) had briefly answered that he was not running for president in 2024. Now, on the surface that is both a splashy comment and scoop from someone who had since the 2020 election neither been shy about his 2024 intentions nor inactive on what one might call the invisible primary front. And even if neither of those are exactly true, Hawley's name has been bandied about in 2024 chatter and his actions -- particularly around the electoral vote tabulation in a joint session of Congress -- have been interpreted through a 2024 invisible primary lens as an attempted play at the Trump end of the Republican Party spectrum.

But here is the thing: This is not Hawley's first time saying no to a 2024 run. CNN asked him that question back in November 2020. His response? "I'm not."

Neither blunt denial, however, is all that Shermanesque. "No, I'm not running," and "I'm not" are not definitive declinations. Both leave the door wide open to, if not a change of heart, then to simply saying something along the lines of "I wasn't running then, but I am now," later on down the line. The trick for the Shermanesque statement is always whether one can effectively add "yet" to the end of the turndown response.

Compare "No, I'm not running," with Sherman's "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." A "yet" can be added to the former but is much harder to tack onto the latter. Hawley, then, was not Shermanesque in either his November or January responses. 

But was he Sherman-ish? 

That is a different question spurred by a variation on the Shermanesque statement that gained some notoriety around the time of the 2018 midterms when the candidate side of the 2020 invisible primary was beginning to heat up. It was around that time that both Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) responded to 2020 questions with answers that looked like some variation on, "I intend to serve the full six years of my [Senate] term." Now, obviously, in O'Rourke's case that was rendered moot when he lost the election to Texas' incumbent, junior senator, Ted Cruz (R). But when he said it -- before the election -- serving the full Senate term was still at stake. 

But for Gillibrand, the statement, before and after the 2018 midterms, was not a clear denial. However, it, on the one hand, kind of painted her into a corner, but on the other, kept the door open to at least "exploring" a run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. The lengths of that exploration can be wide ranging. In her case, Gillibrand ran for 2020 -- and with a formal entry -- up until August 2019. But she never ran in 2020.

The key in the Sherman-ish statement is that "painting oneself into the corner" bit. It is not a definitive "no," but it does potentially set up roadblocks to entry later. No one wants to start a campaign off by having to answer "why did you change your mind/why are you abandoning your word and/or constituents to run?" questions (not that that is any serious obstacle).

The true measure of running or not running is less what the prospective candidates say and more about what they do. Follow those actions and one will get a much better sense of what is happening in the invisible primary. 

In Hawley's case, the statements have been neither Shermanesque nor Sherman-ish, but his actions have maybe pointed elsewhere. Yes, that includes his very public position-taking on the electoral college tabulation. But it also includes things like out-of state fundraisers (like the one that got canceled in Florida in the wake of the events of January 6).

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