What Does It Mean To Suspend a Campaign?

Whatever the candidate wants it to mean.

John McCain

John McCain announced Wednesday that he would temporarily suspend his presidential campaign so he can help negotiate the bailout package for the financial industry. McCain canceled campaign events and announced plans to take his advertising off the air, but his spokespeople have still been appearing on TV, and he continues to raise money. What does it mean to suspend a campaign, anyway?

It’s up to the candidate. Under election law, the phrase “suspending a campaign” has no formal meaning. It’s used most frequently by candidates when they drop out of their primary race. There’s a reason for that: If a candidate “ended” his campaign instead of merely “suspending” it, then he might lose eligibility for federal matching funds that would help pay off his debts. The phrase has been employed at least as far back as the 1970s and continues to serve as the most popular way for candidates to end their primary bids without closing down their campaign committees.

McCain is not, in fact, the first presidential candidate to take a hiatus in the middle of a general election campaign. In June 2004, both candidates for president suspended most of their political activities in the days following Ronald Reagan’s death, although they did not pull their advertising. Ross Perot abruptly suspended his campaign in July 1992—ostensibly for good—despite projections that he might win as much as 20 percent of the vote. Then, on Oct. 1, Perot re-entered the fray, citing those grass-roots supporters as a motivation.

Perhaps the most dramatic campaign suspension came in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson interrupted his campaign less than a week before Election Day to respond to a riot at the Menard State Prison. Stevenson’s advisers reportedly disagreed with the Democratic nominee’s decision, which forced him to miss planned speeches in Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and New York. According to the New York Times, Stevenson “followed a force of 321 state troopers and prison guards, armed with shotguns, machine guns, small arms and billy clubs as they stormed into a large cell house to end the uprising.” The show of force managed to free seven guards who had been taken hostage and end the riot. Stevenson had less luck on Election Day, losing by almost 11 percentage points to Dwight Eisenhower.

It’s not the first time McCain has suspended his campaign activities, either. In 1999, McCain canceled the formal announcement of his presidential candidacy due to air strikes on Kosovo, claiming it was not an appropriate time for a political event. The next year, McCain suspended his campaign in a more conventional way after Super Tuesday, although campaign advisers said McCain would consider re-entering the race if then-Gov. George W. Bush performed particularly poorly in subsequent primaries.

Bonus Explainer: How does a campaign pull its ads off the air? By telling the people at the TV stations or cable providers to stop running them. As the Explainer has noted before, an advertiser can usually get a spot off the air pretty easily. (For example, a sales manager at one Cincinnati TV station told the Explainer that he was able to stop playing McCain’s ads in time for Wednesday’s evening news.) But political ad buyers say it still can take up to 24 hours or so for other stations to change their advertising logs, and reports abound of McCain ads running in Florida, Virginia, and elsewhere.

For the ads he does succeed in canceling, McCain probably won’t lose his money; instead, his campaign will receive credits that can be used for advertising in the future. But just as there was a slight delay in taking some ads off the air, there could also be a delay in getting them back on, given the advance notice stations need to place them in rotation.

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Explainer thanks Bob Biersack of the Federal Election Commission, Ondine Fortune of Fortune Media Inc., Paul Herrnson of the University of Maryland, Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, and Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.