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Hillary Clinton's Brazen Non-Candidacy

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Lots of buzz this morning about a Mike Allen story over at Politico on how Hillary Clinton may be delaying the formal announcement of her candidacy.  I'm not surprised at this, but it raises the question: What’s the point of formal announcements anyway?

The main reason to take overt steps (forming an exploratory committee or, eventually, making an announcement speech) is straightforward: to signal the other candidates and the party actors -- the people who will be making the decision on the nominee -- that the candidate is really in. The more skeptical or uncertain these groups are of someone's intentions, the more explicit he or she must be in order to be taken seriously.

Another traditional reason to take formal steps has to do with the intricacies of campaign law, even though this may be less important now than in the past. Clinton, for example, isn’t going to be taking federal matching funds for the Democratic nomination stage or public financing for the general election.

A third reason for formal announcements is to generate a couple of days (if the candidate is lucky) of favorable publicity.

That’s about it. Out in the real world, contenders such as Clinton have been running for months or years by now. Sure, they could drop out, but that can happen after a formal announcement, too. Formal announcements are staged events, not decision points.

Yes, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post is on to something when he worries that “Hillary aides are hyper-focused on what Beltway press says about meaning of announcement timing.” If Clinton’s campaign is obsessed with short-term, meaningless effects on the news cycle, that isn't good news, and it would be worse if she brought that attitude to the presidency. But since a formal announcement is just a press event, it makes some sense that decisions about it be made with the press in mind.

If Clinton really thinks she can avoid criticism by pretending she isn't a candidate, she's deluding herself. But if she wants to use her supposed non-candidacy as an excuse to duck some questions she would rather not answer, or simply to shorten the time she’s eventually going to have to spend on the road doing active campaigning, then I can’t see there’s much harm done.

In the meantime, the rest of us have no reason to take this dance seriously. Clinton is running for president right now, and the press and everyone else should treat her as an active candidate. 

  1. “Lots of buzz” means people in my Twitter feed are talking about it. My Twitter feed consists mostly of political reporters and political scientists. 

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