Since late last year, presidential hopefuls have been romancing donors, hiring staff and haunting the diners and senior centers of Manchester and Dubuque. But on paper, most of the candidates spent virtually no money exploring a presidential bid until very recently. According to campaign disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission last week, the much-promoted campaign staff they hired had other jobs. And their many, many trips to New Hampshire and Iowa had nothing to do with running for president. Such accounting — which the campaigns defended as perfectly appropriate but some election lawyers said violated the law — has allowed would-be candidates to spend months testing the presidential waters while saving cash to use later in the primaries.
It also let them tap their most loyal donors for additional funds that will not count against the limits on contributions to their official campaigns. And it has contributed to what some experts described as a kind of campaign Wild West, with candidates and their lawyers testing or crossing legal boundaries stretched thin by the advent of “super PACs” and by Federal Election Commission deadlocks.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Kenneth Gross, a Washington election lawyer and former Federal Election Commission general counsel. “This campaign cycle more than any other, we’ve seen more pre-announcement activity being paid for through essentially unregulated money.”