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Should we believe Elizabeth Warren when she says she won’t run for president?

(Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In a newly-published interview with Fortune, Elizabeth Warren seemed to go further than before in stressing that she wouldn't run for president, despite the urgings of some liberal groups. Here's the key exchange:

Q: So are you going to run for President?

A: No.

The focus on this new quote may seem ridiculous, since Warren has repeatedly made similar avowals — for instance, in a December interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, she said this:

"I'm not running for president...

...I told them, 'I'm not running for president.'

...I am not running for president...

...I am not running for president..."

But those declarations were couched in the present tense — "I am not running" — rather than "I will not run" or "I will never run." This was absolutely a deliberate decision on Warren's part — Jeff Zeleny of ABC News pressed Warren on her word choice in 2014, and she continued to studiously stick to the present tense. That meant she was choosing not to rule out a future run (Warren would be 71 for the 2020 election), or even to conclusively rule out a 2016 run.

This new disavowal from Warren seems to depart from this specific talking point, since the question she was asked was whether she was "going to run for president" — and she gave a firm no.

Politicians change their minds when circumstances change

Still, Warren's new statement is far less definitive than Mitt Romney's infamous statement in January 2014 to the New York Times' Ashley Parker:

"Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no. People are always gracious and say, ‘Oh, you should run again.' I'm not running again.

As we're now seeing, it took less than a year for Romney to change his mind. He told a group of donors last week that he in fact now might run.

Politicians' denials of interest in running for president are often later contradicted. In February of 2011, Rick Perry was asked if he'd run for president, and responded: "No, no, no, no, no." He jumped into the race just six months later. Chris Christie offered similarly adamant denials through much of that year, but when donors tried to coax him into the race, he spent two months seriously considering it a bid before again opting against it. And then there was Barack Obama, who repeatedly said he wouldn't run for president until he began floating a bid in late 2006.

In each of those cases, the situation changed. Mitt Romney looked like a strong frontrunner early in 2011, and scared off challengers. But his poll numbers remained tepid into the summer, and several key elements of the party worried about his chances — so Perry and Christie saw a potential opportunity. For Obama, as Bush's popularity plummeted and the Iraq war situation got worse and worse, his chances to supplant the expected frontrunner Hillary Clinton looked better and better.

But will the Democrats' situation change for 2016?

The difference for Warren and the Democrats this time around is that Hillary Clinton's poll numbers for the primary are actually extremely good — far better than her own polling in 2008, or Romney's in 2012. She's also winning endorsements from various party figures even though she's not yet running.

So, if these circumstances change — if Hillary doesn't run, or her standing in the polls begins to plummet, or if it becomes clear that a sizable portion of the party won't support her — it seems conceivable that Warren could heed the calls of various activists and jump into the race. But if Warren thought a presidential bid looked like a promising and appealing prospect under current conditions, she'd be floating the possibility of a run now, like Jeb Bush and Romney are. For the moment, it's best to take her at her word that she's focused on the Senate.