Sen. Elizabeth Warren kicked the 2020 White House race into high gear on New Year's Eve when she announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee.
The announcement made clear that Warren is in the race for the Democratic nomination, but by forming an exploratory committee, she is technically still one step short of officially becoming a presidential candidate.
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An exploratory committee is a vehicle by which candidates for federal office can "test the waters" of a bid before officially entering a race.
It's a mostly technical distinction that allows candidates to form a committee and begin raising and spending money on limited campaign activities like polling and outreach. And exploratory committees aren't initially required to file reports with the Federal Election Commission, at least until a candidate's bid becomes official by FEC standards.
That happens, according to the FEC, when a candidate engages in "certain activities" that constitute official campaigning -- "making or authorizing any statements that refer to themselves as candidates"; "using general public political advertising to publicize their intention to campaign"; "raising more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters or amass funds to be used after candidacy is established"; "conducting activities over a protracted period of time or shortly before the election"; or "taking action to qualify for the ballot."
Once a candidate engages in any of those campaign-type activities, they trigger official candidate status, must register as such with the FEC, and begin filing regular financial reports -- reports that include money raised or spent in the "testing the waters" phase. Exploratory committees are subject to the same contribution limits as regular campaigns ($2,700 per-donor per-election).
The real advantage of an exploratory committee is that it allows candidates two swings at the "presidential announcement" news cycle -- first, when they announce their exploratory committee, and again when they make their bid official.
Warren's decision to form her exploratory committee on December 31 also ensures that she will have the entire first quarter of 2019 to begin raising funds for her presidential bid. That will give the Massachusetts senator a head start in a crowded field during the first fundraising period of the 2020 cycle, covering January 1 through March 31. On top of that, Warren enters the fray with already considerable financial advantages, including $12.5 million left over in her Senate campaign account, which she can transfer to her presidential campaign.
Brendan Fischer at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group focused on campaign laws, explained that the FEC "allows an individual at the testing the waters stage to voluntarily form an 'exploratory committee,' and to voluntarily file reports disclosing contributions and expenditures, but there is no legal obligation to do so until they become a candidate."
"A candidate or potential candidate is under no legal obligation to form an 'exploratory committee'— but a presidential hopeful can create multiple opportunities for news coverage by first announcing the creation of an exploratory committee, and then later announcing their campaign," Fischer said.
In the absence of an exploratory committee, the FEC advises that candidates at least "set up a separate bank account for the deposit of receipts and the payment of expenses," which ultimately must be detailed in the campaign's first financial report after the campaign becomes official.