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What forming a presidential exploratory committee actually means

Pete Buttigieg explores presidential bid

One could be forgiven for believing Sen. Elizabeth Warren has officially launched her 2020 presidential campaign. The Massachusetts Democrat is holding events in early primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, and traveled to Puerto Rico to bring her populist economic message to the territory. However, although Warren is all but certainly running for president, she has not yet taken the final step of launching an actual campaign.

Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all instead announced the formation of "exploratory committees," a vehicle to test the waters before diving in head first. Julián Castro created an exploratory committee in December, before taking the final plunge weeks later. Other candidates — Sen. Kamala Harris chief among them — have skipped the exploratory phase and launched right into campaign mode.

What is an exploratory committee?

Essentially, candidates create exploratory committees so they can raise and spend money to test the level of support for their potential campaigns before becoming a formal candidate.

Under federal election law, once a candidate for federal office raises or spends $5,000 on campaign-related activities, he or she must file a "statement of candidacy" and report contributions and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). But candidates still in the "exploratory" phase are under no such obligation, as long as they don't engage in certain activities viewed as "campaigning" by the FEC. Exploratory committees must still keep financial records, and the limit on individual contributions still applies, but candidates can conduct polling or call supporters without having to report the money spent to the FEC.

Candidates are not required to file their exploratory committee with the FEC, but they often do. This allows them to transform the exploratory committee into the official campaign committee when the candidate formally declares. For instance, Barack Obama's exploratory committee in 2007 became Obama for America when he officially launched his bid.

Federal law does not distinguish between official campaign committee and an exploratory committee that has registered with the FEC. This means an exploratory committee that has filed can raise funds for both exploratory purposes and explicit campaign purposes, such as hiring staff and running ads. This also means, however, that the committee is subject to the $5,000 limit on individual contributions. If someone forms an exploratory committee and decides against running for office, the committee's activity doesn't have to be reported to the FEC, and any funds raised don't count as contributions.

In 2016, Jeb Bush used a super PAC as his de facto exploratory committee, allowing for unlimited contributions — although it could not transfer funds to his campaign. Watchdog groups claimed that Bush was violating campaign finance law. 

For most candidates, the only distinction between an exploratory and campaign committee is the name. Warren's committee has been filed with the FEC, so it is subject to campaign committee laws, although she has not officially filed as a candidate.

Why create an exploratory committee?

Again: Money. Announcing an exploratory committee is now tantamount to announcing a candidacy, although it does leave some wiggle room for potential candidates to back out of running. It gives time for candidates to raise money and set up their campaigns. It also gives them the opportunity to have a soft-launch with the exploratory committee and save the official announcement for a larger venue at a later date.

Are candidates who have launched exploratory committees "running for president"?

It's a bit fuzzy. Legally speaking, Warren's exploratory committee is a full-fledged campaign committee, because she filed it with the FEC. But she still has not filed what's called a "statement of candidacy." It's commonly accepted that Warren is running, as it is with Gillibrand and Buttigieg, both of whom are still in the exploratory phase.

Who's in the running

Presidential campaigns officially launched:

  • John Delaney (launched on July 28, 2017)
  • Andrew Yang (launched on Feb. 8, 2018)
  • Richard Ojeda (launched on Jan. 10, 2019)
  • Julian Castro (launched on Jan. 12, 2019)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (launched on Jan. 21, 2019)

Presidential exploratory committees launched:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (launched on Dec. 31, 2018)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (launched on Jan. 15, 2019)
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg (launched on Jan. 23, 2019)

Intending to launch presidential campaign:

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (announced on Jan. 12, 2019)