The Real Reason Presidential Candidates Form Exploratory Committees
Earlier this month, Sen. Tim Scott put out a slick campaign-style video and announced that he was forming an “exploratory committee” for president. But does that mean he’s actually running?
Exploratory committees are essentially a half-measure for the indecisive; they let would-be presidents do many of the things candidates do (raise money, hire a staff, conduct polls) without technically being one. Exploratory committees (also known as “testing-the-waters” committees) don’t have to report to the Federal Election Commission, but they do have to follow its rules. And the minute the non-candidate announces their intention to run or takes action to qualify for the ballot, they legally become a candidate and have to report all their financial activity from the exploratory phase.
Presidential hopefuls don’t have to form exploratory committees, but many of them do. And almost all of those who do eventually become official candidates. Since the modern primary era began in 1972, at least 89 people1 have announced an exploratory or testing-the-waters committee for president. Only six ended up not running, the most recent being then-Sen. Evan Bayh in the 2008 election — almost 20 years ago. So it would be a pretty big shock if Scott decides not to take the plunge this year.
Almost all exploratory committees turn into real campaigns
Politicians who announced exploratory or testing-the-waters committees for the 1972-2020 presidential primaries and whether they eventually officially ran
|Candidate||Election||Party||Became Declared Candidate?|
|George H.W. Bush||1980||R||✓|
|George H.W. Bush||1988||R||✓|
|George W. Bush||2000||R||✓|
So if 93 percent of exploratory committees turn into campaigns, why do politicians bother taking that partial step? In a word: attention. Making two announcements — one for your exploratory committee, one for your actual campaign — gives the media two chances to cover you. For example, according to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, mentions of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who ran for president as a Democrat in 2020) and physician Ben Carson (who ran as a Republican in 2016) on the three major cable news networks spiked both after each announced their exploratory committees and after each declared they were officially running for president. (For context, the chart below also includes cable news mentions of Scott after his exploratory-committee announcement this year.)2
But Scott didn’t have to announce an exploratory committee to get two spurts of media attention. He could have followed the lead of author Marianne Williamson and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: announce you’re running on social media or TV without much pomp or circumstance, then hold a big campaign rally “formally” kicking off your campaign at a later date. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Bernie Sanders all did this in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and it gave them two spurts of cable news coverage too.
This all raises a question: Which event marks the true launch of a presidential campaign? The exploratory-committee announcement? The candidacy announcement? The kickoff rally?3 It’s an important question for us as journalists, since we have to make decisions about when to cover a candidate without letting them hoodwink us into giving them too much coverage. But it’s also an important question for researchers and historians, who need to be able to accurately tell the tale of previous presidential campaigns.
Let’s eliminate kickoff rallies right off the bat; assuming the candidate has already declared their intention to run, the rally is little more than free advertisement for their candidacy. That leaves us with the exploratory-committee announcement versus the candidacy announcement. On one hand, we’ve seen that almost all exploratory-committee announcements are simply preludes to the inevitable. On the other, they aren’t 100 percent guarantees that someone will become a full-blown candidate.
In the end, we at FiveThirtyEight crave that 100 percent certainty. (We so rarely get it!) So our policy is not to consider anyone an “official” presidential candidate until they declare their unambiguous intention to run. And it appears we’re in good company: The New York Times and Washington Post aren’t considering Scott an official candidate yet either. Based on their past behavior, cable news networks feel the same way. Since the 2012 cycle, candidates have almost always gotten more cable news coverage after declaring their candidacy than after announcing their exploratory committee.
Candidacies get more coverage than exploratory committees
Number of 15-second cable news clips in which presidential candidates were mentioned in the week following their exploratory committee announcements compared with the week after they declared their official candidacies
So, Sen. Scott, if you felt like your exploratory committee didn’t get a ton of media coverage, there’s a reason for that. If you want us to write about you, it’ll just take two simple words: “I’m running.”