Inslee is already running for president, but hes thinking hard about when to tell you that.
Inslee is already running for president, but he's thinking hard about when to tell you that. David Ryder/Getty Images

What's the difference between Gov. Jay Inslee giving “some thought” and “actively considering” running for president?

It's a trick question because they both mean the same thing: Inslee is running for president.

In the last month he has gone from giving “some thought” to “actively considering” running for president but he wants to make it clear that he is “not yet an active candidate,” as he told The Hill last week. (Just ignore his budget-breaking travel, $112,000 in his presidential PAC, or meeting with billionaire political financiers.)

So let me set the story straight: Even if he is being publicly coy about saying “I do,” our governor is already running for president.

How far he makes it in the race is unclear (and not very promising) but there is no question that Inslee is one of a pack of national Democrats who are clamoring over each other in what political scientists call the “invisible primary.”

Running for president begins long before you actually say the words "I am running for president." We are still over a year away from voters casting any primary votes, but candidates are already competing against each other. Only instead of ballots, these politicians are competing for fundraising dollars, endorsements from major political financiers, well-regarded campaign staff hires, and positive portrayals in the media.

Competing in this race is as important or even more important than doing well in early primary states like New Hampshire or Iowa. If a candidate fails to gain sizable support over the next year, they will not be competitive when the votes actually start being cast and they are forced to travel across the country jumping from one state to another. Candidates who do well in the invisible primary like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush can go from a primary in New Hampshire to a campaign in Arizona with local political operatives already working away, local governors and senators ready to share podiums with them, and a massive amount of cash to pay for it all. Winning the invisible primary doesn’t guarantee securing a nomination (see Jeb) or winning the election (see Hillary), but accumulating support right now is still an integral part of the path to the White House in 2020.

Even Donald Trump, the supposed breaker of every political norm, engaged in the invisible primary. Although our criminal-in-chief, of course, drumming up support in his own strange and illegal ways. It was during the invisible primary that Trump won the crucial support of Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., which somehow involved Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen, Falwell, and a Miami pool boy.

And it was during the invisible primary that people at the highest levels of Trump’s campaign staff appear to be colluding with Russia for their support in the election. A foreign power that proved to be very helpful in getting Trump elected.

Now before you start bemoaning the prospect of election coverage already heating up when we just got through the midterm elections, I should point out that there is democratic value in this process. Even though it involves candidates like Inslee running around the country shaking hands with billionaires behind closed doors, it also gives us a chance to shine an extended spotlight on who is running for president. We now have the chance to vet our candidates for a long time, something that was much less possible in the system that the invisible primary replaced.

Party nominees were once chosen at party conventions, where multiple ballots on the convention floor mixed with backroom deals gave us presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the invisible primary, how candidates fare in the media (and increasingly social media) is a central metric of success. The publicity attached to the invisible primary makes it by definition more open than what was happening in the 1930s. Media scrutiny is one of the only democratic aspects of the invisible primary, so it only makes sense that journalists cover what candidates in the invisible primary, like Jay Inslee, are up to.

Thanks to the invisible primary and federal campaign finance laws we can see that Inslee has the support of powerful people like Amazon executives, environmentalist donors, and the true kingmaker Rick Steves. He is already floating his platform focused around climate change. And we are starting to be able to figure out if Inslee has any real chances of winning the Democratic nomination. Things don’t look very good.

Inslee’s $112,000 on hand is just a fraction of what other candidates have raised.

Inslee has very poor national name recognition—serving as the chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association is helpful for party support but doesn’t get your name out to the general public as well as being attacked by Trump or starring in documentaries—and there are big doubts as to how much appetite progressive voters have for sending another affluent white guy into the White House. Plus, Inslee is from a very safe state for Democrats, meaning selecting Inslee wouldn’t be winning over any Electoral College votes that Democrats wouldn’t otherwise win in a general election.

Inslee’s strongest asset appears to be the perception that he is the greenest candidate on the left. The New York Times profiled Inslee when the governor attempted to create a carbon tax in Washington. If it passed it would be this country’s first tax on carbon, a policy that is widely believed to be one of the most effective ways to fight climate change. But Inslee didn’t get the carbon tax passed and the climate change legislation he unveiled earlier this week does not include any policies to put a price on carbon emissions. There’s hardly anything in the package that hasn’t already been done by either California or Oregon, which raises doubts as to how Inslee can look like the greenest candidate when the spotlight shines on him.

That’s all to say, Inslee has a lot of reasons to ultimately decide not to publicly announce his candidacy. Just don’t think he isn’t already running for president.