When asked by Fortune writer Sheila Bair back in January of 2015 if she was going to run for President, Elizabeth Warren responded with a simple “no.” Since then, however, there has been a strong movement to draft her to run. The creatively titled “Run Warren Run” Facebook page has over 76,000 likes. According to Huffington Post, she has also received endorsements from both the Boston Globe Editorial Board and notable actor and activist, Mark Ruffalo. Additionally, while Warren may not have yet branded herself a candidate, the media has taken to discussing her as though she is one, dismissing and making the case for her viability in near equal measures. The discrepancy between Warren’s willingness to label herself as a candidate and the media’s willingness to treat her as one has many people scratching their heads. To the casual observer, this is a confusing conundrum, and while it is possible that the media has gotten disproportionately excited over a non-candidate, to the political scientist it seems like a quintessential invisible primary is in play.
For one thing, the endorsements mentioned above are notable, since endorsements are one of the most visible aspects of the invisible primary, and go a long way toward establishing credibility during the invisible primary. Even more notably, though she claims she won’t be running for president, when Warren was shown a video where actor Mark Ruffalo encouraged her to run, she spouted off what sounded suspiciously like a political platform, something all candidates must have.
While it is fun to note that Warren got an endorsement from a well-known actor, it is perhaps more important to note that she has already picked up a media endorsement. Meenekshi Bose, author of From votes to victory winning and governing the White House in the twenty-first century, would certainly think so, anyway. He claims in his book that, since potential candidates vie so heavily for media coverage during their invisible primaries, said primary is not truly so invisible; all you have to do to watch it play out in front of you is keep an eye on which politicians are getting media attention. 
Julianne Flowers, Audrey Haynes, and Michael H. Crespin, authors of The Media, the Campaign, and the Message, are in agreement with him as well. They extend his argument a step further, however, stating that since potential candidates are heavily reliant on the press during a period of time in which the election is so still far off, the press does not feel the same sense of urgency to report on the upcoming election hoopla as they do. This dichotomy gives the press a pulpit of power over the candidates, and allows them to only pick up stories that are interesting enough to maximize their readership. It might make for an interesting story, for example, if a candidate is doing particularly well or particularly badly in the polls, or if some kind of gaffe or scandal occurs. While politicians can image craft all they would like; it is ultimately the press that decides their image, and it is because of this dichotomy and journalists’ interests in novelty that Iowa and New Hampshire play such big roles in the invisible primary, simply because their caucuses are held first.
While Warren has received endorsements galore, many of which have been gifted to her from the powerful press, one caveat is that few of Warren’s endorsements have come from party elites, since she is more progressive than many of the centrist Democrats that have found their way into Washington, and without the backing of party elites a bid for the presidency is unlikely to be successful.
In fact, should Warren declare herself a candidate, she might even face opposition from her party, since Wall Street banks do not like her regulatory efforts. As reported by The Hill and a myriad of other news sources, several banks – Citigroup, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America – have even threatened to withhold campaign donations from Senate Democrats unless they can reel her in. This may put her at odds with her party, but it also means that her name holds clout in Washington, and puts her in a unique position of bargaining power, should she be willing to reach a compromise on this issue.
As for why no one in the media seems to be taking Warren’s denial that she plans to make a bid for the presidency very seriously, it is because it is not unheard of for a candidate to deny presidential aspirations, only for said candidate to later throw his or her hat into the race. In fact, there is a longstanding precedent of exactly this, and doing so often serves as a strategically motivated decision, due to the current state of campaign finance laws, which only apply to those who call themselves a candidate. As a result, candidates will oftentimes engage in candidate like behavior before officially declaring a bid for the presidency, in order to get the most bang for their buck, so to speak.
Trevor Potter, former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission, was interviewed by The Daily Beast on this very phenomenon, and had this to say on the subject:
“There are rules for what money may be used to run for president: only individual contributions up to only $2,700 per person. Whereas people who are not running for president and merely going around the country giving speeches and meeting people can use almost any source of money, in any amount, with no disclosure. So that puts a premium on staying outside of the election system for as long as possible.”
Furthermore, Warren seems to have fared well in the two states that matter the most during the invisible primary, Iowa and New Hampshire. Dino Christenson and Corwin Smidt, authors of Polls and Elections: Still Part of the Conversation: Iowa and New Hampshire’s Say within the Invisible Primary, argue that these states matter so much because their caucuses tend to be held first, so they serve as the first true test of a potential candidate’s viability. As a result, journalists focus disproportionately on the polls that come out of these states, meaning that candidates that poll well will get a lot of free publicity, and financial backers are more likely to support candidates who do well here, than they are those who do not. According to populist group “Run Warren Run”, a poll of 400 people conducted on January thirtieth through February fifth put Warren ahead of Clinton in Iowa, 31 percent to 24 percent. In New Hampshire, her lead is 30 percent to 27 percent. As expected, this poll immediately garnered the attention of the Washington Examiner and other news sources.
One significant challenge that Warren would face as a candidate is that she would be running against fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, someone, who despite the polls taken in Iowa and New Hampshire, is arguably a strong candidate. The financial backing that Warren would struggle to obtain based on her hostile relationship with the bank (which has also jeopardized her relationship with other members of her party) would come easily to Clinton, who has a well-documented history of being paid to give speeches to Goldman Sachs. Clinton also has name recognition working to her benefit, since her husband is a former president still remembered by many, whereas as Warren is just a Senator from Massachusetts, known chiefly among progressives.
Warren would have to work hard to compete with Clinton, and perhaps this is why she has been hesitant to announce a run, though she has been critical of both Clintons in the past, and has not voiced her support of Hillary in the present, saying that she prefers to wait until she sees her agenda. Her ultimate strategy could be to build a grassroots organization of populist supporters while she waits Clinton out, trying for the presidency in either 2020 or 2024. The problem with that strategy is, as pointed out by The Atlantic writer David Frum, that Warren is currently sixty-five years old.
In Frum’s words, by 2020,
“Warren will be nearly 70, older than most presidential candidates, even in our geriatric political era.”
As a result, it may be now or never for Warren, if she wants to make a bid for the presidency. If reaching for the presidency is an opportunity she wants to strive for, then she would be wise to do it now. It is not as though all hope is lost for Warren, either, even despite the challenges she would face.
President Obama has spoken well of Clinton, but he has stopped short of offering her what may be the most powerful endorsement of all, at least among Democrats, that of the standing president. Sources say that this is because he has other friends considering a run, and that pledging his support to Clinton would be premature, since she just announced her plans to run for president. There was speculation, however, among political columnists and pundits in July of 2014, which resurfaced again in March of this year, that Obama would be more likely to support Warren than Clinton. If true, this news could be a huge benefit to Warren.
Better yet, though Warren has far from trumped Clinton in every poll, she continues to rank competitively, holding her own against her. According to records from Polling the Nations, though more Democrats throughout the U.S. seem inclined to vote for Clinton in 2016 than Warren, Warren tends to come in second fairly consistently, in most cases ranking above current Vice President Joe Biden in terms of popularity. Among the candidates listed alongside Clinton, this makes Warren appear to be the most sizable challenger, even though Clinton tended to have a pretty sizable lead, though the exact number of that lead ranged by as much as forty points depending upon the polling question.
As suggested by Lincoln Mitchell, for the Observer, should Warren truly opt not to run against Clinton, she may be offered the chance to run alongside her as Vice President. As absurd as this idea might sound at first, it would actually be a sound move on Clinton’s part, since some of the more corporatist policies she has embraced as a centrist Democrat have threatened to alienate her from the more progressive faction of the Democratic base, and allying herself with the likes of Warren would stamp out once and for all the criticism that she is too conservative.
According to Mitchell, this ticket would have its upsides for Warren, as well, win or lose:
She would not have to give up her seat in the Senate and could use the campaign to travel around the country spreading her economic message and build name recognition. Thus, even if Ms. Clinton lost, Ms. Warren could return to the Senate an even bigger national figure. If, however, Ms. Clinton won, Ms. Warren would be at the center of the administration and in a much better position to influence legislation than as a member of the minority party in the Senate.
A political primary is defined by Taegan Goddard’s on-line political dictionary as:
The period between when a candidate announces their bid for public office and when the actual primaries take place. It’s also sometimes called the “money primary since candidates spend most of their time during this period raising money in an effort to show political strength.
What this definition fails to account for, however, is that a potential candidate may use this period of time to test the waters in order to see whether a bid for the presidency is even viable; therefore, a cautious candidate can have participated in the invisible primary and quietly concluded that the odds were not in his or her favor, without ultimately deciding to announce a bid for public office.
This may yet turn out to be the case with Warren, despite populist calls for her to run. Whether or not she ultimately decides to make a bid for the presidency, Warren has participated with ease in the invisible primary, and is likely to reap new opportunities as a result, especially if she is able to wangle herself the vice presidency. If not, she will be remembered as the women that was too modest to run for president, despite calls for her to do so, and in a political sphere where very few politicians show restraint anymore, that is certainly not a bad image. In fact, perhaps it is even a bit refreshing.
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Bastanmehr, Rod. “Hillary Clinton Rakes in Big Money from Two Goldman Sachs Speeches in One Week.” Alternet. The Independent Media Institute, 31 Oct. 2013. Web. Apr. 2015.
Bedard, Paul. “Shock Poll: Elizabeth Warren Leads Hillary Clinton in These Two Key 2016 Primary States | WashingtonExaminer.com.” Washington Examiner. Washington Examiner, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
Buxton, Ryan. “Elizabeth Warren Responds To Mark Ruffalo’s Passionate Plea For A 2016 Run.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
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Cillizza, Chris. “Elizabeth Warren’s Answer on Hillary Clinton’s Liberal Credentials Wasn’t Convincing at All.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 25 Feb. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
Flowers, Julianne F., Audrey A. Haynes, and Michael H. Crespin. “The Media, the Campaign, and the Message.” American Journal of Political Science 47.2 (2003): 259-73. JSTOR. Web. Apr. 2015.
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Goddard, Taegan. “Invisible Primary.” Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary. Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary, 30 Dec. 2010. Web. Apr. 2015.
Han, Lori C. “Off to the ( Horse) Races.” From Votes to Victory Winning and Governing the White House in the Twenty-first Century. By Meenekshi Bose. 1st ed. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2010. 91-95. Print.
Hensch, Mark. “Obama Wants Warren over Clinton, Dick Morris Says.” The Hill. Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., 22 Mar. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
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Levine, Sam. “Boston Globe Urges Elizabeth Warren To Run For President.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 22 Mar. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
Levine, Sam. “Obama Won’t Endorse Hillary Clinton Just Yet.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
Mitchell, Lincoln. “Would Clinton-Warren Be A Winning Ticket?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Apr. 2015. Web. Apr. 2015.
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