An exploration of the presidential exploratory committee

An early step to running for president is to form an exploratory committee. So what can it do?

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, Monday, March 7, 2011, at the Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa. He has filed papers with the Internal Revenue Service to form a presidential exploratory committee.

What does a presidential exploratory committee do, anyway? Some potential 2012 candidates say they’re close to forming one. The name makes it sound like it outfits Oval Office wannabes with pith helmets and rope.

No, exploratory committees aren’t supported by The National Geographic Society. They’re legal entities that can raise and spend money so candidates can stick a toe in the waters of a presidential campaign and see if the temperature suits them. For instance, they can pay for travel, so potential candidates can discover if anyone in New Hampshire knows their name. They can pay for polls, so candidates can discover how less well-known they are than Sarah Palin.

What can’t they pay for? Yard signs and TV spots that promote someone’s candidacy. Stuff candidates have to do to qualify for ballots. Any concerted political activity as an actual vote nears. And if they want to keep their exploratory committee going, politicians with presidential aspirations have to watch their language when they publicly discuss running.

An individual is no longer in the testing-the-waters phase once he or she “makes or authorizes statements referring to him/herself as a candidate,” according to Federal Election Commission guidelines.

Candidates may opt to form exploratory committees for two main reasons. (They don’t have to, and not all of them do.)

The first is that it’s a legal halfway house between running and not. You can start up campaign bookkeeping without having to disclose where your money is coming from – although you are still subject to federal donation limits.

The second and perhaps more important reason is that it gets you attention. It’s a decision point the press will chew over for weeks. First, you – already knowing full well what your poll numbers are – hint that you might form an exploratory committee. Story! Then you say you’re close to a decision. Another story! Finally, you announce the actual formation. Story No. 3!

Then you go on “Piers Morgan Tonight” to hint about your actual declaration of candidacy, and the whole coy process begins again.

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