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What's The Deal With 'Exploring' Candidates?

Bill Daley
The White House

Tuesday's declaration by Bill Daley that he was "officially" running for governor was one of the least surprising announcements of this political season. You could be forgiven for thinking he was already running in the Democratic primary. But Daley insists that until this week, he was just "exploring" a bid for governor.

Why would a politician act like a candidate, and talk like a candidate, and raise money like a candidate — but insist they're not yet actually a candidate? To find out, we sent Brian Mackey on a voyage of discovery.

[MUSIC] This is not the type of exploration candidates have in mind.

CAPT. KIRK: "Space. The final frontier."

Rather than boldly going where no man has gone before, they can often be found trudging around the state, attending endless chicken dinners and cold-calling everyone they've ever met to please give them some money.

These are the voyages of candidates who say they're just "exploring" a run for political office. Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner spent months doing it; here he is in February, at the Adams County Lincoln Day Dinner.

RAUNER: "… So I've decided to explore the possibility of running for governor. ..."

Rauner eventually made it official, but we'll come back to him a little later.

Until this week, Daley also insisted his campaign for governor wasn't really official.

DALEY: "… We'll go on our timetable. I'm gathering — obviously fundraising was important, bringing people together to work on the campaign, and political involvement — all those things get to be put together, you don't just start on the first day with a sprint. This is a marathon."

So why do candidates insist they're just exploring a run for office? I called Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, and asked if there was any sort of legal benefit to just exploring. He listed the five different types of political fundraising committees.

BORGSMILLER: "There's a candidate committee, a party committee, PACs …"

Yada, yada, yada.

BORGSMILLER: "And as you noticed in all five of those, you never did hear me mention the word 'exploratory.' "

That's right. Under Illinois election law, there's no such thing as an exploratory committee. All the rules that apply to candidates who say they're fully running for office also apply to those who say they're just exploring -- that is, anyone who raises at least $5,000 in political contributions.

BORGSMILLER: "So anybody that announces an exploratory committee today — that they're exploring whether or not they're going to run — once they hit the threshold amount … then they would be required to file as a political committee."

So why do candidates insist on playing Magellan? For one, they usually get an extra day of media coverage — one for the exploratory announcement, another when they make it official. They also get to build up that nebulous political commodity known as "momentum."

But there's something else at work, here, too. And it has to do with a quirky feature of American politics.

MOONEY: "Americans, in general, don't like politics and politicians."

Chris Mooney is a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois Springfield.

MOONEY: "If you are a person who is a politician, who wants to run for office and put themselves forward as a politician, that seems kind of unseemly."

Mooney says we'd rather have a draft movement, candidates who seem like we've had to force them to run. Someone who says ...

MOONEY : " 'Oh, well, you know, the people have been coming to me and telling me that they need help, they need my leadership, and I'm here to offer some help.' "

Here's Bruce Rauner, when he was still exploring.

RAUNER: "So I've been traveling the state — I've been from Rockford to Mount Vernon, back and forth, listening, learning, policies, issues. And I hear a lot of anger and frustration."

In other words, Rauner might've been happy to go on just being another super-rich venture capitalist, but what can he do? People want him to run. At least, that's the image he's trying to portray.

MOONEY: "It's classic. … I tell my students, it's the only job in America where we want people that don't want the job, or have no experience in the job. It's like if you were applying for a job as a baker, you walk in to the bakery and say, 'Look, I know nothing about baking. …' "

RAUNER: "… I'm not a politician. …"

MOONEY: " '… I hate bread. …' "

RAUNER: "… I've never run for office -- I didn't even run for student council in high school. …"

MOONEY: " '… I don't know anything about flour, so make me a baker.' "

So there you have it. Politicians have to pretend they're really not sure that they want this job, but, oh, OK, if you really think so, I guess I'll set aside my ambition and run to be the leader of the fifth most populous state in the union.

Because it seems like the the last thing a lot voters want in a politician is someone whose ambition is to be a politician. And as long as that's still the case, candidates will keep on pretending they don't really want to be candidates.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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