Explainer: Why Do Politicians Suspend Their Campaigns?

When it comes time to drop out of a political race, candidates’ preferred language has overwhelmingly become that they are “suspending” their campaign.

On Tuesday, Rick Santorum became the latest member of the club:

“We made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting.”

So why don’t candidates and politicians just call a spade a spade, admit that the race is over? The decision to suspend has both political and logistical motivations.

“Politically, it’s giving a signal that you could always revive in the off chance that the world changes,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany. “But legally it doesn’t have much signification.”

In fact, for the purposes of ending a federal campaign, the word "suspending" is not a term defined under the Federal Election Campaign Act, the federal law that the Federal Election Commission has jurisdiction over - FEC regulations.

Still, its use has become commonplace politically. 

“Everyone in political universe understands what candidate means when they say 'suspending,'” said Joe Birkenstock, a lawyer with Caplin & Drysdale in Washington D.C. who specializes in campaign finance and election law. “People understand ending the campaign doesn’t mean you can walk away from debts.”

While active campaigning may be over, the campaign will still have outstanding bills, salaries, and rents to pay.

In a message to supporters on his campaign website, Santorum urged contributors to help him pay down his debt (just over $920,000 at the end of February) and admitted in his first interview after ending his campaign that his lack of funds was a major reason he ended his bid.

Santorum is in good company when it comes to suspensions.

Announcing the end of his campaign in December, Herman Cain said:

 “As of today, with a lot of prayer and soul searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign.” 

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, was a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for president. When she did, she simultaneously ended her campaign and endorsed Barack Obama’s bid:

“Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory and the extraordinary race he has run.” 

In fact, nearly four years later, her campaign is still technically open. In fact, you can still contribute to it on www.hillaryclinton.com, either by purchasing a “Hillary 2008” t-shirt or simply making a donation. 

“You have to keep [a campaign] open because you have to pay those debts," explained Birkenstock. 

Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid was one of the most expensive primary campaigns ever. As of June 2008, her campaign committee owed vendors $12,026,720 and she had personally loaned the campaign $13,175,000. Her campaign committee was able to raise a total of $3,683,735 after the general election in 2008 and she's whittled her other debts to $245,000.00, according to campaign finance filings with the FEC. Clinton ultimately forgave the loans to her campaign, including interest.

Historically, candidates have kept their campaigns open as a way to still qualify for federal matching funds against money they raise when the campaign is suspended.

But practically speaking, few candidates in presidential races now opt for public financing, as President Obama proved in his 2008 bid how much more money candidates can raise without it, said Birkenstock.

Current campaign suspensions are more about debts and the time it takes to wind down such large campaign operations.

"The fact that the issues been around for 20 years, is almost misleading," said Birkenstock. "It’s a different set of concerns that Pat Buchanan had 20 years ago than Rick Santorum had today."