Big news in the 2016 world Wednesday: Professional haircut Donald Trump plans to launch an exploratory committee for a presidential bid. If he does, he'll immediately vault into a position that makes him as serious a candidate as Cherunda Lynn Fox, a Republican candidate from Michigan who also has an exploratory committee. Pretty important stuff.
There are a lot of people who will wonder why we are talking about Trump at all. He is slightly more likely to become our next president than he is to be the first person to set foot on the surface of a planet circling Alpha Centauri. (A recent poll showed that 76 percent of Republicans "absolutely" or "probably" won't vote for him.) He threatens to run every cycle these days; why give him any attention?
Because in the same way that the boy who cried "Wolf!" had to keep upping his game to keep fooling people into believing him, Trump has pulled out the "exploratory committee" card, a phrase that sounds like it's significant to the casual observer. "Well, maybe this time he means it," they might think, not realizing that this is, instead, the political equivalent of that "Seinfeld" episode when George Costanza tried to convince the Rosses that he had a place in the Hamptons. Donald Trump just told us about his horse Prickly Pete.
There are a few phases to running for president. There's the "I am not doing anything phase," which is when you sort of think about it and stay low-key. There's the "testing the waters" phase, which is an actual stage of running that's recognized by the Federal Election Commission. It allows candidates to raise money and actually figure out if running makes sense. This is the phase most of the big-name candidates are in now, in part because once you declare your actual candidacy, you have to unveil who those donors were. That's the third stage: Actually running. Once you say, "I am running for president," you're a candidate, and federal laws kick in.
What's an exploratory committee? It's an FEC-recognized entity into which a candidate can raise money during the water-testing period. It files regular reports on what it's doing. To form one, you simply indicate that you're doing so on your "Statement of Organization" form. To form an exploratory committee, you do not need: support, staff, money, a cool hairdo. Fox's committee appears to be run out of her home, for example.
And she's a step ahead of Trump! It's not clear that he actually will form a committee, as empty a gesture as that is. He just says he will. (None of the real 2016 candidates have created exploratory committees, preferring super PACs.)
"Leaving aside the legal aspects, I see no difference" between a "testing the waters" campaign with and without an exploratory committee, Ray La Raja, associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst told the Post by email. "However, if you are not a front-runner you may choose to form exploratory committee early to signal strongly that you are in the game," he added. This is Trump's move. "Hey, guys, I'm totally serious this time," he's saying. "I even plan on buying a horse named Prickly Pete."
Patrick Egan, associate professor of politics at New York University, sees Trump's gambit as part of a bigger plan. "It's crucial to see Trump's moves in the context of a new era of American politics where a presidential candidacy can serve as a backdrop to a career as a cross-platform political celebrity," he wrote via e-mail. "The Internet and cable news now allow even candidates with narrow appeal to reach enough people to fund a campaign — and more important, to buy books, to generate audiences at events that justify high speaking fees, and to create opportunities for endorsements of products and services."
"No one," he added, "has a better understanding of all this works than Donald Trump."
Donald Trump is not actually going to run seriously for president. He may not even bother actually filling out the form to set up the committee. He wants our attention. And we are giving it to him, on this occasion, simply to point out that this "new" step does not mean that he deserves it.