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.
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.
‘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 points three weeks ago.
‘I’d really rather not’
In the face of questions about a 2020 bid, practiced reluctance is a science and an art.
There are certain rules: Insist that time with family is paramount. Sigh deeply. Recount how often people on the street spontaneously urge a run, like fans demanding “Thunder Road” at a Springsteen concert.
But the sales job can vary by candidate.
“I don’t wake up in the morning with any burning desire that I have to be president,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told New York magazine this month. He just wonders if anyone else can measure up, in the estimation of Bernie Sanders.
“If it turns out that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump,” he said, “then I will probably run.”
‘At this point’
This is the safest hedge in the business, with the benefit of being literally true.
“I am not a candidate at this point,” former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told USA Today last month. Future points were to be addressed at a future point.
Candidates generally announce their plans a few months after the midterms, hoping to time their entry for maximum effect.
Go too early, and you risk plowing ahead with incomplete information, before the field has been set — to say nothing of the danger of peaking too soon.
Go too late, and it can undercut the assembly of a proper campaign apparatus. Already, a shadow scramble is underway to court activists, donors and prospective staff members to the camps of top Democrats who are not running for president. At this point.
‘Buy my book’
The faces of likely candidates can generally be found in three places at this stage: Iowa, New Hampshire and a bookstore near you.
These are boom times for generically inspirational titles and abstract nouns.
“This Fight Is Our Fight,” by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“The Truths We Hold,” by Senator Kamala Harris of California.
“Where We Go from Here,” by Mr. Sanders.
Other high-profile Democrats had already authored their entries in recent years, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The upsides are many: A book tour presents an excuse to travel the country and introduce likely campaign themes in interviews without explicitly campaigning, while exposing audiences to choice bits of biography that they might not have known.
The downsides: wrist soreness from autographing copies, bruised egos if the title plummets on Amazon.
Sometimes, a drumroll begets more drum-rolling.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire progressive activist flirting with a bid, appears particularly fond of teasing “major announcements” that raise as many questions as they answer. Last week, he seemed to take his most serious step to date, previewing a series of town halls centered on his left-leaning platform.
But days later on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Steyer was coy, saying he had made no decisions about his political future. “This is about the people of the United States, not the person,” said a person who might like to lead the people of the United States.
‘Vote for…my friend!’
For those concerned that repeated solo visits to early-voting states might be too conspicuous, this year has supplied an alternative: campaigning for fellow Democrats.
Some, like Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, have used the moment to return to the political fore after some time away. Mr. Patrick has devoted particular energy to a handful of challenging states for Democrats over the past year, with appearances in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.
Others contenders, like Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, essentially delivered stump speeches at stop after stop this fall.
“This country still needs patriots,” Mr. Booker told an Ohio crowd in October.
He hastened to add something about his schedule: He had just returned from speaking to some fine folks in Iowa.
‘O.K., O.K., I’ll do it’
Pretense can be overrated.
On Tuesday, a day after Mr. O’Rourke floated the possibility of running, another 2020-minded Democrat from Texas, Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, distinguished himself by being far more direct.
“I am very likely to run for president,” he said on MSNBC.
Representative John Delaney of Maryland decided well over a year ago to skip the slow-burn portion of the ritual: He was running — immediately — in part to get a jump on better-known competitors.
“I think I’m the right person for the job, but not enough people knew who I was,” Mr. Delaney said in a recent interview. “Or still know who I am.”
He has 61 weeks or so to make his case.