Exploratory committees, the weird opening act of the 2020 campaign, explained
It might sound silly — and, frankly, it kind of is! — but the “exploratory” phase has real value for candidates. They can raise a bunch of money. They can start polling and traveling and hiring staff. By the time they officially announce their candidacy, the campaign is in effect already up and, ah, running.
One side benefit: Candidates get two news cycles in the all-important bid to raise their profile with voters. They’ll get headlines once for the committee news and then again for the formal announcement.
In other words, “exploratory” is a bit of a misnomer in the presidential context. I asked a handful of election experts and nobody could name a notable person who established an exploratory committee and then declined to announce as a candidate. If you’re exploring, you’re running. The 2020 campaign has already begun.
To form an exploratory committee, all a candidate really needs to do is file a statement of their candidacy to the Federal Election Commission and slap the word “exploratory” on the name of their campaign’s committee. That’s it.
But once you file a statement of candidacy, even if you use the “exploratory” label, you’re a candidate in the eyes of the law. “There is no legal distinction” between a campaign committee and this kind of exploratory committee, Brendan Fischer, who works on federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, says.