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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?
John Lindsay 1972 D
Walter Mondale 1976 D
Scoop Jackson 1976 D
Lowell Weicker 1980 R
Howard Baker 1980 R
John Anderson 1980 R
George H.W. Bush 1980 R
Bob Dole 1980 R
Ronald Reagan 1980 R
Jimmy Carter 1980 D
Jerry Brown 1980 D
Larry Pressler 1980 R
Ted Kennedy 1980 D
Reubin Askew 1984 D
Alan Cranston 1984 D
Ernest Hollings 1984 D
John Glenn 1984 D
Walter Mondale 1984 D
Jesse Jackson 1984 D
Pat Robertson 1988 R
Dick Gephardt 1988 D
Jack Kemp 1988 R
Gary Hart 1988 D
Jesse Jackson 1988 D
George H.W. Bush 1988 R
Joe Biden 1988 D
Bob Dole 1988 R
Paul Simon 1988 D
Paul Laxalt 1988 R
Pat Schroeder 1988 D
Doug Wilder 1992 D
Bill Clinton 1992 D
Jerry Brown 1992 D
Pat Buchanan 1992 R
Dan Quayle 1996 R
Arlen Specter 1996 R
Alan Keyes 1996 R
Bob Dole 1996 R
Pat Buchanan 1996 R
Richard Lugar 1996 R
Pete Wilson 1996 R
Steve Forbes 1996 R
Alan Keyes 2000 R
Bill Bradley 2000 D
John McCain 2000 R
Lamar Alexander 2000 R
John Kasich 2000 R
Dan Quayle 2000 R
Gary Bauer 2000 R
George W. Bush 2000 R
Elizabeth Dole 2000 R
Orrin Hatch 2000 R
Howard Dean 2004 D
John Kerry 2004 D
John Edwards 2004 D
Dennis Kucinich 2004 D
Duncan Hunter 2008 R
John McCain 2008 R
Rudy Giuliani 2008 R
Evan Bayh 2008 D
Sam Brownback 2008 R
Jim Gilmore 2008 R
Mitt Romney 2008 R
Joe Biden 2008 D
Ron Paul 2008 R
Tom Tancredo 2008 R
Barack Obama 2008 D
Hillary Clinton 2008 D
Bill Richardson 2008 D
Herman Cain 2012 R
Buddy Roemer 2012 R
Newt Gingrich 2012 R
Tim Pawlenty 2012 R
Mitt Romney 2012 R
Rick Santorum 2012 R
Ron Paul 2012 R
Jim Webb 2016 D
Lindsey Graham 2016 R
Ben Carson 2016 R
Donald Trump 2016 R
Lincoln Chafee 2016 D
Rick Santorum 2016 R
Marianne Williamson 2020 D
Julián Castro 2020 D
Elizabeth Warren 2020 D
Kirsten Gillibrand 2020 D
Pete Buttigieg 2020 D
Mike Gravel 2020 D
Michael Bloomberg 2020 D

Source: News reports

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

Candidate Election Party Exp. Cmte. Candidacy
Herman Cain 2012 R 12 275
Buddy Roemer 2012 R 33 12
Newt Gingrich 2012 R 446 970
Tim Pawlenty 2012 R 155 452
Mitt Romney 2012 R 375 1,390
Rick Santorum 2012 R 95 276
Ron Paul 2012 R 206 374
Jim Webb 2016 D 30 89
Lindsey Graham 2016 R 144 504
Ben Carson 2016 R 176 297
Donald Trump 2016 R 84 1,229
Lincoln Chafee 2016 D 77 145
Rick Santorum 2016 R 20 386
Marianne Williamson 2020 D 0 0
Julián Castro 2020 D 22 100
Elizabeth Warren 2020 D 1,008 801
Kirsten Gillibrand 2020 D 205 283
Pete Buttigieg 2020 D 26 522
Mike Gravel 2020 D 2 4
Michael Bloomberg* 2020 D 935 1,036

*Bloomberg announced his candidacy less than a week after announcing his exploratory committee, so his periods overlap.

Search queries of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC included the candidates’ full names, common nicknames, common misspellings of their names and, if appropriate, their titles plus their last names. The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Time.

Sources: Television News Archive, news reports

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.”


  1. Not including Scott.

  2. We ran a search of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC coverage during the months immediately before, during and after each candidate announced their exploratory committee and official candidacy in the Television News Archive using the GDELT Television API. In that database, daily news footage is split into 15-second clips, and searches return the clips that contain a mention of our search queries (which included the candidates’ full names, common nicknames, common misspellings of their names and, if appropriate, their titles plus their last names). The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Time.

  3. You can even make the argument — a pretty convincing one, I think — that even politicians who do none of these things but flirt with a presidential run in the years leading up to the election still ran for president — just unofficially. For example, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started a PAC and visited Iowa before announcing this month that he would not officially run. However, the standard of having no standard is obviously impractical, so let’s focus on trying to define official candidacies.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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