As you may have already surmised, the process by which ordinary humans run for president is a byzantine one, shrouded in mystery and wonder. For instance, if you walked up to someone on the street and asked them, "Is Mitt Romney running for president of the United States?" you'd probably elicit an affirmative answer. At that point, you could respond by saying, "Bzzzzt! Nuh-uh! He hasn't even technically formed an exploratory committee yet." You know, if you wanted to be a jerk about it.
But that's the nature of the process. Some people start making noises that signify that they might want to be president, and then they start doing things that are loaded with significance to political reporters -- they write a book, they start a PAC, they go to Iowa -- and then one day you hear that Tim Pawlenty has formed a "presidential exploratory committee," which to you, sounds vaguely like some sort of spelunking excursion, but which reporters on the campaign beat assure you is a very big deal.
And so you accept that as a very big deal, and that maybe allows you to understand that Tim Pawlenty is slightly more serious about running for president than everyone who doesn't have a "presidential exploratory committee," and also maybe you get this joke from the 32nd season of "Saturday Night Live":
Chris Matthews: You think [Barack Obama] hates women?
Hillary Clinton: Well, Chris, I think the fact that knowing I'm running for president he would deliberately form an exploratory committee to run himself in the same election, when he has to know he'd be running against me, well, I mean, Jiminy Cricket! At the very least, it shows a certain lack of respect for women.
Chris Matthews: But in fairness to Senator Obama, until today when you've been asked if you were running for president, you've always denied it.
Hillary Clinton: What? [EXPLETIVE] that [DELETED]. He knew I was running for president! [EXPLETIVE] [DELETED]! Is there anyone in the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] country who didn't know I was running for president?! I've been running for president since I was 5! Are you [EXPLETIVE]-tarded? [pause] I'm sorry, Chris. It's just that getting elected president is something I feel passionately about.
Chris Matthews: That really comes through.
But what exactly is a "presidential exploratory committee?" Is it an important distinction in the life of a campaign that signified a significant step forward, or just some part of the overall pageantry of a presidential campaign? As it turns out, it's both!
You see, up until Tuesday, all Tim Pawlenty has done was to "test the waters." He's been trying to determine things like, "When I tell people that I'm considering running for president, do they accept it as a credible thing that might happen on this planet, or do they point and laugh at me?" Once that period is through, he moves to the "exploratory committee" phase, and this actually is a legal distinction defined by the Federal Election Commission:
An individual who merely tests the waters, but does not campaign for office, does not have to register or report as a candidate. Therefore, while a campaign committee files disclosure reports, a testing the waters fund does not have to file reports until the candidacy is established. At this point, all testing the waters activities must be disclosed on the next scheduled FEC report. A testing the waters fund abides by the same contribution limits and prohibitions as a campaign committee. There are activities that indicate that an individual is campaigning and, therefore no longer testing the waters. Among these are:
* Making statements that refer to yourself as a candidate;
* Using advertising to publicize your intention to campaign; or
* Taking action to qualify for the ballot.
If someone is testing the waters and decides not to run, testing the waters activity is not disclosed to the FEC. However, the contribution limits and prohibitions apply whether or not the individual decides to run.
So, when a candidate says they are forming an "exploratory committee," this does not mean that only now are they taking up an exploration of the possibility that they might mount a presidential campaign -- that work is already well underway. It simply means that they are exploring a new relationship with the FEC.
Of course, they are also looking to explore a new relationship with the media. This is all explained very well by NPR's Ron Elving in a December 2006 piece titled, "Declaring for President is a Dance of Seven Veils."
The exploratory committee has been around for decades, and technically it creates a legal shell for a candidate who expects to spend more than $5,000 while contemplating an actual run. Under the rules, exploratory money may be raised without the full disclosure of sources required of true candidates. Only when the candidate drops the exploratory label does the full responsibility of transparency apply.
Candidates use an exploratory committee as not only a transitional phase for their bookkeeping but as an extra claim on media attention. Some of the most skillful handlers like to leak word that their candidate is testing the waters, then leak word that he or she is thinking about forming an exploratory committee. Additional "news" can be made when the same candidate actually forms such a committee and registers with the Federal Election Commission. Yet a fourth round of attention may be generated when the word exploratory gets dropped from the committee filing.
Of course, forming an exploratory committee doesn't necessarily commit a person to actually running for president. Think of it like this: you've been dating a nice lady (the American people) for a long time, and are thinking about settling down (launching a presidential campaign). But first, you arrive at the moment where you have to meet that nice lady's parents (the FEC). And so you arrange some opportunities to interact (file financial disclosure forms), but that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll put a ring on that (officially commit to running for president).
As Elving points out, the "formal announcement" where you finally tell the world that you're in the race for real doesn't come until the "sixth veil." (This is followed by the seventh, in which the candidate issues "the requisite denial of any interest in being nominated for vice president.")
And that's what an "presidential exploratory committee" is, so there's no real need for you to ever make such a big deal about it ever again. Just go on, living your lives.