Only a few months ago, there were so many people running for president that you would need your fingers and toes to count them all. Now, there are only five left, but the rest of them are still sort of with us, appearing on ballots like clingy wraiths. They were loath to leave, too, never actually saying good-bye. Running for president requires an abundance of action words; winding down a campaign necessitates reacquainting yourself with euphemism.
First, you have to assure your voters that you aren’t really leaving; you’re just suspending your campaign. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, the rest of the interminable horde of people who thought, for some ever-unknown reasons, that they might be president someday — all of them said au revoir to 2016 through suspension, not withdrawal. Which means, of course, that there’s always a chance they could come back to save the day, if necessary. Not that there are any dire circumstances that would prompt a group of failed politicians to feel optimistic about that happening, as everything is oh-so-hunky-dory in the 2016 presidential race and all.
Dropping out has a terrible finality to it. Suspension, on the other hand, conveys that the candidate’s absence might only be temporary. If a campaign is suspended, there will always be a possibility that Marco Rubio will come back to lead us into the 21st century, although we seem to have come 16 years into it without his help; that Rick Santorum will put a bunny in a hat and pull out more than a long-forgotten win in Iowa; that after its brief time on earth, Jeb Bush’s campaign will return to the heavens, that special place where it made perfect sense that a man with no charisma and a good pedigree was destined to rule us all (in a way, it always felt like Jeb’s campaign was suspended in midair).
The fact that a candidate has yet to return from a suspension this year — or ever, unless you count John McCain’s brief recession-prompted hiatus in 2008 — hasn’t deterred this now-standard campaign tradition. The Federal Election Committee obviously hasn’t bothered specifically defining what "suspending" versus "dropping out" versus "withdrawing" versus "acknowledging reality" means, because it’s never been a very pressing issue. Decades ago, candidates had to clarify why they were choosing to suspend their campaigns rather than simply dropping out; since the modern primary has only existed since the '70s, the idea of dropping out is sort of novel too.
In 1976, Indiana senator Birch Bayh suspended his Democratic presidential primary campaign. "He was 'suspending' his campaign rather than actually quitting," per the New York Times, "so as not to jeopardize the Federal funds still due him. However, he conceded that 'the possibility of resurrecting a suspended candidacy is not great.'" Back when public financing was still a thing in presidential elections, some candidates suspended their campaigns to make sure they might still get matching funds to pay off their debts. Now that most candidates prefer to raise their own money, this is no longer a relevant reason to suspend rather than drop out.
As the process of picking presidents has evolved, so has the reasoning for only sort of saying good-bye. In 1988, Al Gore suspended his presidential campaign, telling reporters that he would still "technically" be a candidate "but only to enable my delegates to go to the convention so that they can represent our point of view in our party's deliberations."
In 2016, an election year in which the Republican race may not be decided until the convention, this reason for keeping a campaign alive, if only in the most technical manner, makes a lot more sense. The "possibility of resurrecting a suspended candidacy" may still be less than great, but as Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says, "We’ve never had an election like this before."
If the handful of Republican candidates who had already exited the race had formally dropped out, their delegates would be freed and allowed to vote for whomever the hell they wanted. They would also lose the ability to continue collecting donations for things other than paying off debt. (Some presidential campaign committees stay alive for years after they fade from relevance because of outstanding debts. Ask Newt Gingrich how his 2012 campaign is doing right now!)
All those suspended candidates now have the option of hanging on to their delegates … and maybe running a few ads when the convention gets closer, trying to win over party leaders (since winning over voters didn’t work out so well). Those campaigns, even though they aren’t really doing anything right now, can even continue raising money to get ready for a sequel — although it’s not clear donors are dumb enough to donate to a defunct campaign when there are actual candidates still running. (Though people did give more than $100 million to Jeb Bush’s super PAC.) As we’ve said, nothing like this has ever happened before, but 2016 is special, something that our army of ghost candidates is very aware of.
Just last week, Scott Walker, whom we honestly forgot even ran this cycle, told reporters, "I think if it’s an open convention, it’s very likely it would be someone who’s not currently running. I mean, who knows." When a Rubio staffer was asked about the possibility of someone not in the lead becoming the nominee, he said, "The convention isn’t until July — who knows what the state of the race will look like then. I can tell you there’s certainly historical precedent for what you just described, but we’re quite a ways off from that."
Not only are candidates who still technically have a campaign entitled to their delegates and future fundraising — they can also donate money to other candidates. If they aren't able to secure a presidential nomination themselves during a confusing convention, they could at least try to tempt the winner with cash and try to get a plum administration gig.
In short, whatever the heck "suspending your campaign" means — especially in this nonsensical election year — is in the eye of the desperate beholder. It probably won’t mean anything but "I quit," but don’t tell these guys yet. This is the only thing they’ve got going for them.
Candidates who suspend their campaigns are usually gone for good, only existing as long as they have debt to pay off. Noble says that they might have to take a closer look at the issue, however, if the boundaries between candidates and super PACs continue getting murkier. Before announcing his candidacy, Jeb Bush fundraised with Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting his then-nonexistent campaign; other candidates no longer in the race did the same. The FEC, currently unable to do much of anything thanks to it being composed of two Democrats and two Republicans who often disagree along neat party lines, hasn’t said that this type of coordination is a problem.
But what happens if a candidate is no longer actively campaigning and starts fundraising with a super PAC — and then reenters the race a few months later? Or what happens if a bunch of suspended campaigns team up to raise money against another candidate still in the race? Or what if a candidate who has no plans of reentering the race gets a job with the super PAC that used to support him? None of this has ever happened before, but every election cycle since the Citizens United decision, candidates and super PACs have found new ways to test the rules. And this year, the uncertainty and unusually large pack of suspended campaigns means that there is a lot of room for nefarious creativity.
Regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen, a few super PACs left cheerleading for nonexistent campaigns are content to keep the hope alive, in case any of these unlikely scenarios comes to pass. The 2016 Committee, which was raising millions of dollars for Ben Carson’s candidacy from direct-mail solicitations long before the neurosurgeon even entered the race, is still collecting donations, per The Daily Caller. The super PAC argues that its goal is now making sure that Carson becomes vice-president. During its existence, however, the 2016 Committee has done little but spend money to raise money – and pay those people who work for it — something it seems content to do for as long as possible.
Which leaves another reason that all of these people would rather suspend their campaign than concede defeat: It keeps the ecosystem that made your campaign humming along, just in case you come back. Of course, again, that probably won’t happen — but logic never stopped Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ben Carson, or Carly Fiorina from believing that they might be president one day. "Suspend" is a word for the dreamers, and it’s clear that the presidency is a job that only a very hopeful person could ever want.