How To Run for President

Before the campaign trail, the paper trail.

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Last week, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack filed forms with the Federal Election Commission to launch his candidacy in the 2008 presidential elections. Meanwhile, both Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani filed to create exploratory committees as a first step toward presidential bids. How much paperwork do these guys have to fill out?

A lot. The bureaucratic campaign begins when a candidate first gets together an exploratory committee. In general, candidates register their committees as not-for-profit corporations. Giuliani’s filing in New York describes his corporation as one that will “conduct federal ‘testing-the-waters’ activities under the Federal Election Campaign Act.” (Click for a PDF.) In many cases, these activities don’t amount to very much beyond polling, traveling, and making phone calls, until the exploratory committee gives way to a “campaign committee” later on.

Once the committee decides the waters are warm, it’s time to file a Statement of Candidacy. This includes the candidate’s name and address, the name and address of his or her principal campaign committee, and little else. Technically, you don’t need to fill out the paperwork until you’ve raised or spent $5,000 on your campaign; after that, you have 15 days to send the form to the FEC and the opposing candidates. A candidate gets another 10 days to fill out a Statement of Organization, which registers his or her principal campaign committee with the FEC.  The document designates a treasurer and a custodian of records to oversee money in and money out.

The government doesn’t demand any filing fees that might dissuade long-shot candidates. Typically, more than 250 people fill out the paperwork every presidential election cycle. By this August, 75 people had already registered for the 2008 elections. (None are considered major candidates.)

Other candidates never register with the FEC at all. In fact, you can dodge the whole bureaucracy if you can run for president without spending more than $5,000 of your own money. In the 1996 presidential campaign, Ralph Nader made a point of not filing a statement of candidacy; he came in fourth in the voting.

Once you’ve declared your candidacy, federal law requires you to file monthly or quarterly financial reports on campaign spending. To get matching campaign funds from the federal government, you’ll need to prove that you raised at least $5,000 in each of 20 states, and then submit a letter and written certification to the FEC agreeing to play by its rules. Your campaign will also have to fill out forms for personal expenditures, debt settlements, and pretty much everything else. You can find all the reporting forms here.

If all that seems like a pain, it’s just the beginning. At some point you’ll need to fill out another mountain of paperwork just to get your name on the presidential ballot in each state.

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Explainer thanks Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, Bob Biersack at the Federal Election Commission, and Paul S. Ryan at the Campaign Legal Center.