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U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) insists that she “is not running for President” and maintains: “I pledge to serve out my term.” Yet few political observers take her comments seriously. In fact, a grassroots movement “Ready for Warren” is forging full-steam ahead to encourage her to run for President.

In American politics, it is kosher for a candidate to repeatedly deny interest in the Presidency and to even issue categorical statements that he/she will not run for President, then subsequently reverse course. Ironically, some politicians even strategize about a potential presidential run after appearing at an event where they double down on their denial of interest.

When a potential presidential candidate answers the question in a non-declarative way, such as “I am not running for President” or “I have no plans to run,” it is often interpreted as a “non-denial denial.” The press and supporters of the potential candidate extrapolate from that statement that the candidate is leaving the door open. This is the case with Elizabeth Warren. She said she “is not running for President.” She did not say that under no circumstance would she run. This is a very different statement.

The art of leaving the door open to a potential run is not a novelty. In 1884, there was an active effort by some Republican Party activists to draft former Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman to seek the Republican nomination for President. Sherman stated definitively: “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” This unequivocal language left no wiggle room for Sherman to explore a candidacy. This absolute language is today called a “Shermanesque statement.” When an individual says he/she will not run for a certain office, reporters often ask if the candidate will make a “Shermanesque statement” that they will not run.

A great example of Shermanesque language was seen in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson, after winning the New Hampshire Presidential Primary with an underwhelming 49.4% of the vote, and polls showing him behind U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, announced to a stunned nation: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Today, however, even a politician speaking in such absolutist language does not necessarily quell speculation of a potential candidacy. It is an odd game where politicians are willing to mislead about their intentions, yet rarely accrue any electoral repercussions. Even when the candidate actually means he/she is not running, they are often not believed. In 2010, speculation of a Presidential candidacy by New Jersey Governor Chris Christy did not cease even after he told a reporter: “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running.”

There are a litany of examples of Presidential candidates who originally pledged not to run, then broke that promise. In 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was asked if he would run for the Republican Presidential nomination that year. His answer was “Absolutely not.” Yet just months later, with polls showing he would do better against the Democratic Presidential candidates than the front-runner, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Rockefeller announced his candidacy stating: “By taking this course at this time I feel I can best serve my country.” Rockefeller lost the nomination to Nixon but his statement that he would “absolutely not” seek the Presidency was a non-issue.

More recently, the day after being elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in November of 2004, Barack Obama said: “I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office in four years, and my entire focus is making sure that I’m the best possible senator on behalf of the people of Illinois.” Yet Obama supporters never took him at his word, and many of his Senate colleagues urged him to run. In February of 2007, he announced his candidacy for President. Obama’s prior “unequivocal” statement did not hurt him.

When ambitious upper-level elected officials seek re-election to their current position prior to a Presidential election, they are often dogged with the question of whether they promise to serve out their full terms or seek the Presidency part way through their turn. In response, candidates often resort to rhetorical gymnastics to give the impression they will serve out their full term, without stating so unequivocally. In an October gubernatorial debate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, running for re-election, was asked if he would serve out his full term. Walker, answered: “My plan is, if the people of the state of Wisconsin elect me on November 4th is to be here for four years.” Five days after winning re-election, Walker, who was widely believed to have harbored Presidential ambitions, told Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press: “I said my plan was for four years … but certainly I care deeply about my state and country.”

Two prominent governors with Presidential ambitions who were facing a tough re-election bid were forced to pledge to serve out their full terms and to do so in non-nebulous terms. The first was Bill Clinton. In 1990, Clinton was asked in a debate with Republican Sheffield Nelson if he pledged to serve out his full term as Arkansas Governor. Clinton responded: “You bet.” However, after easily beating Nelson, Clinton met with Arkansas voters the next year and asked to be released from that pledge. He eventually defied the pledge and declared his Presidential candidacy.

The one recent Presidential candidate whose broken pledge to not run for President and to serve out his term as governor seriously damaged his Presidential candidacy was Pete Wilson, who sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1996. In 1994, when California Governor Pete Wilson ran for re-election, he promised his constituents that he would not run for President in 1996, declaring definitively: “I’ll rule it out.” However, just a year later, Wilson broke that pledge. At a press conference announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Wilson said of his pledge: “When I said it, I meant it.”

In Wilson’s case, the pledge became his Achilles heal. Two of his Republican opponents pounced on Wilson’s broken pledge. Nelson Warfield, the spokesman for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), compared Wilson’s pledge to Clinton’s pledge in 1990, chiding Wilson as “a politician who began his campaign for President the same way Bill Clinton did, breaking his pledge to serve out a full term as governor. Wilson responded: “I was not in any way expecting that I would be standing here talking to you about running for president. At that time, there were a number of people who have my admiration who have since taken themselves out of the presidential sweepstakes: Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Bill Bennett, and Dan Quayle.” Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander focused radio advertisements directly at Wilson. In the advertisement, an announcer exclaims: “If we can’t trust Pete Wilson on that, we can’t trust him on anything.” Wilson’s candidacy soon fizzled.

Potential Presidential candidates are rarely taken at their word when they disclaim interest in the Presidency. It becomes a game. News reporters try to goad them into making a definitive statement that they will not run for President. Presidential candidates who use non-declaratory language in disclaiming a potential Presidential candidacy send signals to supporters and potential benefactors that they are seriously weighing a presidential candidacy. Even after a potential candidate says with absolute certainty that he will not run, many do not believe him or her. With the exception of Pete Wilson, one would be hard pressed to find presidential candidates whose past denials actually had deleterious effects on their presidential candidacies.

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The recent incident where Florida Governor Rick Scott refused to make his way to the debate stage for seven minutes because his opponent, former Governor Charlie Crist, had an alleged illegal cooling fan below the debate lectern is emblematic of the political debate culture today. Rather than dissecting and analyzing the policy prescriptions put forth by the candidates during their debates, it is often the gaffes, one-liners and demeanor of the candidates that garner the most attention.

Fearful of losing their lead by making an inadvertent political gaffe or being outshined by their opponents, incumbents usually want as few debates as possible. In contrast, underdogs often call for multiple debates hoping that the incumbent in the race will falter.

When front-runners make a strategic decision not to debate, challengers often go to extreme lengths to shame their opponent into debating them. An oft-repeated tactic is for an underdog candidate to send a person in a chicken suit to events where his/her opponent appears. This almost always garners media attention.

In 1982, Republican Ray Shamie used a creative tactic which embarrassed Democrat Ted Kennedy into agreeing to debate him. Shamie hired a plane to fly around the country with a trialing banner which read: “$10,000 reward — Get Ted Kennedy to debate Ray Shamie.” The stunt mustered national media attention.

Sometimes a candidate is forced to make a pledge in a debate for political survival, which could hurt him/her in future races. In his 1990 bid for a fifth term as Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton was neck-and-neck with his Republican opponent Sheffield Nelson. While Clinton enjoyed respectable job approval ratings, voters wondered if it was time for a change in the Governorship, and if Clinton would be a full-time Governor if re-elected. There was speculation that Clinton would seek the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1992, taking him away from the state. When Clinton was asked in a Gubernatorial debate if he promised to serve out his full term, he replied: “You bet.” After easily beating Nelson, Clinton met with Arkansas voters the next year, and asked to be released from that pledge. He eventually defied the pledge and declared his Presidential candidacy.

Similarly, during a 1994 debate with Democratic U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Republican Mitt Romney tried to defend himself from charges that he was not a supporter of abortion rights. He said: “I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

This quote has been used ad nosium by Republican opponents of Romney in his two Presidential runs and Romney has spent an inordinate amount of time explaining how he has since come to oppose abortion rights.

Sometimes a first-time candidate can be embarrassed when debating a seasoned political debater. Former President George W. Bush suffered this fate during a debate in his 1978 race for an open U.S. House Seat. His Democratic opponent, Kent Hance, sang from a populist song-sheet by branding Bush: “Not a real Texan.” Hance suggested that Ivy League graduates like Bush and his family caused the economic malaise in the country. Hance embarrassed Bush, and lamented: “My daddy and granddad were farmers. They didn’t have anything to do with the mess we’re in right now, and Bush’s father has been in politics his whole life.”

At the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen stole the show with a pre-formulated one-liner. When his Republican opponent, Dan Quayle suggested that he had more experience than John F. Kennedy had in 1960 when he was elected President, Bentsen quipped: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This line became one of the most remembered in American political debate history.

Bentsen was not the only candidate to pull off a memorable one-liner. At the time, Boston Harbor, located in the home state of Governor Dukakis, was one of the dirtiest harbor in the U.S. After Dukakis gave a byzantine answer to a question about the bulging federal budget deficit, Bush deadpanned: “Is this the time for one-liners? That answer is about as clear as Boston Harbor.”

Memorable lines are often made off-the-cuff and do not appear scripted. In 1990, two Massachusetts Republicans, Bill Weld and Joe Malone, were elected statewide for the first time. Both brought down the house with inimitable lines, which appeared to be impromptu. During a 1990 Massachusetts Gubernatorial debate, Republican nominee Bill Weld exploited a claim by the Democratic nominee, John Silber, Ph.D., that beavers created so much wetland that preserving wetlands should not be of concern. Weld quipped: “Would you tell us doctor, what plans, if any, you have for the preservation of open spaces in Massachusetts, other than leave it to beavers?”

That same year, in the race for Treasurer and Receiver General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Democrat William Galvin, trying to show that his Republican opponent, Joe Malone, was ignorant of economic issues, asked Malone the question: “What’s a junk bond?” Without hesitation, Malone responded: “That’s what we’ll have if you’re elected.”

During a debate in the 1988 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) turned to U.S. Senator Al Gore (D-TN) and blasted him for moving to the right to secure Southern votes. Gephardt said: “When you started this race, you decided you needed a Southern political strategy. So you decided that you’d better move to the right on defense and [on] a lot of other issues. And lately you’ve been sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore” (Al Haig was U.S. Secretary of State in the Reagan administration and was also a GOP Republican Presidential Candidate). Without missing a beat, Gore bested Gephardt, deadpanning: “That line sounds more like Richard Nixon than Richard Gephardt.”

Similarly, in a 2012 Presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) was asked by host Wolf Blitzer about a proposal by one of his opponents, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), to colonize the moon. Paul mustered uproarious laughter for his response: “Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”

Candidates spend hours preparing for their participation in political debates. Much time is spent by candidates rehearsing responses to potential questions, testing one-liners, and engaging in mock debates with staffers. Although it can certainly be argued that a candidate’s debating skills are probably not indicative of his/her ability to govern, how the candidates perform in the debates influences how undecided voters view the candidates and impacts upon their perceptions regarding their ability to govern. Again, for the American people and the media, it is often gamesmanship rather than substance that rules when determining the winner of a political debate.

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Political Exaggerations: Stretching the Truth Is a Tradition in American Politics

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In referring to the reasons for the September 11 hijackings, Republican U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) stated in a 2007 South Carolina Republican presidential debate “They attack us because we’ve been over there.” He was referring to the nation’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East. Paul later pointed out that by meddling in the […]

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In the Political Arena an Underdog Challenger Must Be Creative to Force an Incumbent to a Debate

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In every election cycle, voters witness the spectacle of an underdog candidate challenging an incumbent elected official to participate in a series of debates. This is usually a starting bid, with the underdog hoping the incumbent will engage in at least one debate. A debate is an opportunity for a challenger to share the same […]

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Will the Carpetbagger Card be Effective Against Scott Brown in the New Hampshire U.S. Senate Race?

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Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has packed his truck and moved full-time to his former vacation home in Rye, New Hampshire. He is running for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in November. With Brown the putative favorite for the nomination, the general election will likely be a donnybrook. This […]

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