Quick Q&A: What is a presidential exploratory committee… AND WHY?

I’ve long since joked that my personal Super Bowl happens every four years, lasts for a year and a half, and ends with the president getting elected. Turns out that this year, the presidential election season started in earnest about 22 months before Election Day 2020, when Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on December 31st, 2018. In the two and a half weeks since then, the Democratic primary field consists of eight declared candidates (a few of whom announced before Warren, to very little fanfare), with many more announcements on the way. More Super Bowl for me, I guess.

Maybe it’s just that we’re all paying more attention because of how the federal government has been behaving these past few years, or maybe it’s because we have so many people announcing their candidacies so early, but careful watchers of those announcement videos, public appearances, and TV spots may have noticed that, despite appearances to the contrary, many of the big-name candidates haven’t technically launched their campaigns yet. Instead, many of them (Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro back in December 2018 ) made big announcements that ended with triumphant plans… to form exploratory committees to consider running for president.

You don’t have to be a fan of political semantics to note that “I’m forming an exploratory committee to run for president!” sounds a lot less exciting than “I’m running for president!” However, in many cases, the media have been treating the former much the same way they’d treat the latter. Which begs the question… if people are announcing their candidacies in all but name, what is this whole “exploratory committee” thing and why bother with it at all?

The answer, of course, has to do with money. Under the Federal Elections Campaign Act and Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations, campaigns for federal office (Senate, House, president, etc) are subject to strict guidelines surrounding how they raise money, where they raise it from, and how they have to report it back to the government. Generally speaking, these rules exist to keep campaigns from engaging in sketchy fundraising and spending behavior, but they also make it potentially difficult to test your fundraising potential, or, as the FEC repeatedly puts it in their official documentation, to “test the waters” before deciding to run.

For example, let’s say you wake up tomorrow and decide you want to run for president. You publicly declare your candidacy and begin “testing the waters” to see if your campaign has a shot at getting off the ground. But even “testing the waters” (yes, I am going to keep putting that in scare quotes because I think it’s hilarious that the FEC has made such language official) requires a substantial amount of money, and at some point you will have raised (and/or spent) $5,000, which is the FEC water-testing threshold. Once you’ve raised or spent that five thousandth dollar, you’re officially running in the eyes of the FEC, full stop. You have 15 days to register your official campaign committee, and you are required to adhere, from that day forward, to the FEC’s very strict fundraising and, more importantly, financial reporting guidelines.

But here’s the problem: as followers of American politics will no doubt be aware, running for federal office requires a lot more money than $5,000. Five thousand dollars barely gets you a venue, a sound system, fancy videography equipment, and a catered lunch for your announcement party, much less a useful fundraising goal for “testing the waters.” Surely there must be a way to hit the ground running with a bit more money than that measly $5,000, right?

Enter the exploratory committee.

Under FEC guidelines, if you are thinking about running for federal office but haven’t officially announced yet, you are allowed to form an exploratory committee (or – and I quote – a “testing-the-waters committee”) to raise money and generally prepare yourself for a campaign without needing to file all those pesky FEC reports. Under the rules laid out in the Federal Election Commission Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees (which, according to its introduction, conveniently ALSO applies to presidential candidates as long as you read all the footnotes), a person is considered to be officially campaigning if they:

  • Make or authorize statements that refer to themselves as candidates (“Smith in 2016” or “Smith for Senate”);
  • Use general public political advertising to publicize their intention to campaign;
  • Raise more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters or amass funds (seed money) to be used after candidacy is established;
  • Conduct activities over a protracted period of time or shortly before the election; or
  • Take action to qualify for the ballot. *

Seems pretty all-encompassing at first read, no? Perhaps it should, but technically, if you release a video far in advance of a federal election to announce you’re thinking about running for office, meticulously market your public appearances as anything other than campaign events, and launch your Super-Awesome Presidential Exploratory Committee to collect all the funds that are pouring in from your friends and supporters (as opposed to fundraising under an identical-in-all-but-name Super-Awesome Presidential Campaign Committee), you are legally able to collect donations and spend money without subjecting yourself to FEC reporting guidelines. At some point, of course, you will have to officially register your campaign with the FEC so you can, you know, get on the ballot and actually collect some votes (at which point, you are invited and encouraged by the FEC to keep your existing committee and simply change the name from “exploratory committee” to “campaign committee”), but until that time, you can fundraise, “test the waters,” and definitely not campaign to your heart’s content. As per the FEC, if you decide not to run for president after all, all that money you raised for your Super-Awesome Presidential Exploratory Committee does not have to be reported to the FEC, since you weren’t officially campaigning and therefore those donations aren’t officially considered to be campaign contributions.

That, insofar as I can tell, is the primary benefit of the whole exploratory committee phenomenon, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the other potential explanation that came up in a few non-FEC-related articles I read while researching this explainer. According to a few different news outlets, another theory of the case is that announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee and then announcing the launch of an actual campaign at a later date allows potential candidates to feature in two separate news cycles. While I am skeptical of whether this was a primary goal of any of the major candidates (or rather, individuals exploring whether or not they want to become candidates at some point in the future) who recently launched their exploratory committees, it is a plausible enough consideration to be worth mentioning here.



Exploratory committees, the opening bells of the 2020 campaign, explained

Federal Election Commission Campaign Guide: Congressional Candidates and Committees

What’s an Exploratory Committee?

What is a presidential exploratory committee?


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