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01/01/2019 2:36 AM AEDT | Updated 01/01/2019 2:39 AM AEDT

Elizabeth Warren's 'Exploratory Committee' To Challenge Donald Trump Explained

A what?

US Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Monday she has formed an exploratory committee to run for president in 2020.

If you’re not familiar with the inner workings of American politics, this might sound like an elaborate way of saying a group of people are looking into whether or not she should challenge Donald Trump.

And you’d be right – but why the need for a committee?

Well, first things first.

Who Is Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren is a a progressive Democrat and former Harvard Law School professor who is perhaps best known on these shores for exchanging stinging insults with President Trump.

They clashed frequently through the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump has cast aspersions on her claim to Native American ancestry, repeatedly referring to her as “Pocahontas”.

In October, Warren released a DNA analysis she said supported her assertion that she had Native American lineage that goes back six to 10 generations.

Warren has described Trump as an “insecure money grubber” driven by greed and hate.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Elizabeth Warren waves as activists gather for a protest march and rally in opposition to US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in October.

Policy-wise, she has been a strong voice in the US Senate on financial issues and a self-described defender of the ordinary American against powerful interests.

Those themes were reflected Monday on her website, which portrays Warren as a product of the American dream that has slipped out of reach for too many Americans.

“Elizabeth grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class in Oklahoma and became a teacher, a law professor, and a US Senator because America invested in kids like her,” it says.

So What’s An ‘Exploratory Committee’?

Think of it as testing the political waters before making the big commitment to run as a presidential candidate.

Running an election campaign in the US is mind-bogglingly expensive. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump raised $1.4bn (£1.09bn) and $957m (£748m) respectively during the 2016 campaign

So it makes sense to sound out just how much chance a candidate has before they commit themselves to such huge sums of money.

Campaign financing rules in the US are complicated and once a candidacy is officially announced all kinds of limits apply and detailed records of where the money comes from must be kept and reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the government body that supervises elections.

What are they allowed to do?

An exploratory committee can spend $5,000 (£3,900) on activities such as, according to the FEC website:

“...permissible testing-the-waters activities include polling, travel and telephone calls undertaken to determine whether the individual should become a candidate.”

Other activities could include lunching with prospective donors or political allies for example.

All of this money can be spent without reporting financial records to the FEC.

What Are They Not Allowed To Do?

The prospective candidate cannot spend over the $5,000 limit. If they do then they are required to register as an official candidate and normal campaign rules apply.

In addition, the FEC also says any of the following marks a transition from exploratory work to official campaign activities.

  • Makes or authorises statements referring to him/herself as a candidate.
  • Uses general public political advertising to publicise his/her intention to campaign.
  • Raises more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters, or amasses funds to be used after the candidacy is established.
  • Conducts activities over a protracted period of time or shortly before the election.
  • Takes action to qualify for the ballot.

Are They Obligatory? And What’s The Actual Point?

No, they aren’t obligatory – but they can be useful.

Just the process of announcing an exploratory committee can be beneficial, as reaction to such news can give an indication of a candidate’s popularity.

Right this very second “Elizabeth Warren” is a top Twitter trend in the US and has made the UK top ten, not to mention a slew of news articles.

All of this is effectively free publicity and you can be sure her team are trawling through social media and comment sections looking for insight into how to take the campaign forward, it at all.

So What’s Next For Warren?

Well, she’ll presumably spend $5,000 on a variety of polling and lunching, gauge the reaction and if it seems favourable, launch a campaign to oust President Trump in 2020.

What’s She Promising?

The Massachusetts senator, known as a liberal firebrand in her party, released a video in which she outlines her vision of a path to opportunity for all Americans, not just the wealthy.

“Every person in America should be able to work hard, play by the same set of rules, & take care of themselves & the people they love,” she said in a Twitter post. “That’s what I’m fighting for, & that’s why I’m launching an exploratory committee for president. I need you with me.”

Earlier this month, Julian Castro, 44, who served as mayor of San Antonio as well as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic President Barack Obama, said he was forming an exploratory committee and was and would announce his intentions on Jan. 12.

In 2017 former Democratic congressman John Delaney of Maryland announced he would seek the party’s nomination.