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A liberal watchdog group says some presidential hopefuls are violating campaign finance laws by acting like candidates while claiming they're not. The Campaign Legal Center named four unofficial candidates in legal complaints filed this afternoon with the Federal Election Commission. They are Republicans Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker and Democrat Martin O'Malley. The concept of the presidential un-candidate is a new one this election cycle. Peter Overby is NPR's power, money and influence correspondent, and he explains the political logic behind it.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Stories about money can be complicated, and - I admit it - a little bit dry. So I invited someone to help out to add a little emphasis on the key points.
BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: Hello, Peter.
OVERBY: Hey, Bill. Bill Kurtis is the announcer and official scorekeeper of NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. Today, Bill and I are going to talk about America's favorite political pastime...
KURTIS: ...Running for president. Sound like fun to me, Peter.
OVERBY: I hope so, Bill. Now, if you want to start a run for the White House, what you need is money to build a campaign and see if it'll fly. Here's how it used to work just two elections ago. You'd probably set up a little committee.
KURTIS: Ah, the old testing-the-waters committee.
OVERBY: The money it raised would help you travel to Iowa and New Hampshire, talk to voters, chat up more donors. But testing-the-waters committees come with rules and regulations. The big one - you can't ask any of your donors for very much money.
KURTIS: Twenty-seven-hundred dollars - that's the max.
OVERBY: That's it. Once you say you're testing the waters or exploring a run for president, your friends and allies, your true believers, your mom - they're all restricted to contributions of $2,700 or less. Congress framed these rules 40 years ago during the Watergate scandal, and testing-the-waters committees and exploratory committees were common as recently as 2008. That's the last time Democrats and Republicans both had primary contests. Today, those contribution limits feel too restrictive for many candidates.
KURTIS: And this brings us to the un-candidate.
OVERBY: That's the way around the rules. If you're not a candidate, you can stay outside the system where you can raise a lot more money through other types of political committees.
KURTIS: And here's where political action committees come in - leadership PACs, super PACs.
OVERBY: A leadership PAC is kind of like an exploratory committee, but its contribution limit is nearly twice as high. And a super PAC? A super PAC has no contribution limits at all.
KURTIS: Well, that should make fundraising a little easier. Million-dollar checks are legal.
OVERBY: A million dollars, 5 million dollars - more. And that's the rub with testing the waters and exploratory committees. Compared to what an un-candidate can raise, the take from this kind of committee is chump change. We'll talk more about super PACs another time. With thanks right now to Bill Kurtis of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me...
KURTIS: You're welcome, Peter.
OVERBY: ...I'm Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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