What Are Exploratory Committees?

What do Al Gore, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Gary Bauer, John Kasich, and Dan Quayle have in common? None has formally announced a bid for the presidency, though all have formed “exploratory committees.” What on earth are these committees exploring?

Nothing at all, is the answer. George W. Bush’s committee, formed last week, has no plans to meet. Elizabeth Dole’s doesn’t even have any members. And there’s no legal requirement that a campaign begin with an exploratory committee.

The relevant federal election law requires a candidate who intends to spend more than $5000 to register his campaign (or else forgo federal matching funds). Prior to the 1996 race, federal candidates almost always registered their campaigns (e.g. the John Q. Smith for President Organization) and closed shop if the campaign failed. Now the standard procedure is to register a campaign with “Exploratory” in the title, and later strike the word when a campaign is deemed to have passed the exploratory stage.

The real reason for the sham committees is to generate publicity. Candidates hope to double-dip by getting media coverage both when they announce their exploratory campaign and when they announce their formal campaign. Bush fils and Quayle even announced their intent to form an exploratory committee, and only later announced the actual formation of the committees–in four different states, in Quayle’s case.

Steve Forbes has taken what reporters call the “striptease” one step further. On Tuesday, Forbes intends to be the first candidate to formally kick off his campaign over the Internet (click here for the broadcast). Right now, the site says only that “America’s first full scale Internet campaign begins here… 8 A.M., EST.”

Next question?