Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., announced he’s launching a presidential exploratory committee — but that doesn't mean he's officially thrown his hat in the ring for 2024.
Language matters here. Scott isn’t a presidential candidate — yet. Instead, he’s exploring whether to become a candidate. And that comes with a very specific set of rules laid out by the Federal Election Commission.
Creating an exploratory committee is supposed to allow a (potential) candidate to determine whether there’s enough support to officially file for a run. But make no mistake: It’s rare for a politician to launch an exploratory committee but decide against becoming a candidate.
So why bother?
Launching an exploratory committee can help the potential candidate get two media boosts — one when announcing the exploratory committee and another when announcing their candidacy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took a page out of this playbook during the 2020 election campaign. She announced an exploratory committee in December 2018, and then declared her official candidacy a few weeks later in February.
That meant Warren got two media cycles of announcement coverage instead of one, each of which comes with a boost in online donations and other useful perks for an aspiring president.
But an exploratory committee also comes with restrictions.
If a politician wants to keep their exploratory status, they can’t refer to themselves as a candidate, publicize their intent to campaign or raise more money than is reasonably needed to explore the idea of running for office, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
If a politician with an exploratory committee conducts one of these campaign activities and has raised or spent more than $5,000, they have to register as a candidate.
The exploring politician can travel, conduct polls and make phone calls. Unlike an official campaign, an exploratory committee doesn’t have to register with the FEC. But that doesn’t mean the committee can ignore campaign finance laws.
An exploratory committee is still subject to the same contribution limits as a campaign. As long as a politician stays in that mode, they can raise in excess of the $5,000 limit without disclosing it until they decide to formally announce a campaign. But their first FEC report after becoming an official candidate has to include everything they raised and spent during the first phase, too.