Here’s what an exploratory committee is — and what it isn’t

Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Senator Elizabeth Warren. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Senator Elizabeth Warren announced Monday that she’s forming a committee to explore a possible run for president. It’s a major step in the process of mounting a bid for the nation’s highest office and sends a signal that she’s all but certain to run. But by definition, a politician who has formed an exploratory committee is not yet a candidate for president.

So what is an exploratory committee? It has a lot to do with fund-raising laws. Here’s a rundown.

A person exploring a run can raise money for that purpose

With an exploratory committee, Warren can now openly ask for donations. But these donations can only be spent on activities that “test the waters,” as the Federal Election Commission calls it.


In its guidance for those seeking office, the FEC offers an example of such activities: “Mr. Jones” wants to conduct an opinion poll to help him determine if he can win a political race for federal office.

With an exploratory committee, he is allowed to raise money from supporters to pay for that poll.

There are different reporting rules for such committees

Exploratory committees don’t have to submit finance reports to the FEC . Once a person declares candidacy for office, he or she must report cash raised and spent during the exploratory phase to the agency, but if the campaign never becomes official, the FEC (and therefore the public) never sees those records.

To return to the example of Mr. Jones’s poll, if he had decided against running for office, he would not have to disclose who paid for his poll or how much he spent on it.

But there are limits

Despite the looser reporting rules, some prohibitions on campaign fund-raising are the same for exploratory committees: Politicians who are “testing the waters” may not raise money from corporations, labor unions, foreign nationals, or federal government contractors .


Additionally, campaign contribution limits also apply to exploratory committees: So for instance, an individual may contribute up to $2,700 to an exploratory committee per election.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.