The Semantics of “Suspending” Your Campaign

It’s a verbal crutch that used to be necessary for candidates to keep up appearances. Not anymore.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leaves after a news conference on Monday in Madison, Wisconsin. (Andy Manis AFP/Getty)

When Gov. Scott Walker decided to mash the red escape button on his presidential campaign Monday, he chose his words carefully.

“Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” Walker said on Monday. “With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.”

To state the obvious, Walker, in all likelihood, isn’t actually “suspending” his 2016 presidential campaign. He’s ending it. Neither is it likely that Rick Perry is going to resurrect his presidential campaign after “suspending” it earlier this month.

In every other sect of society, to “suspend” something usually means a temporary stoppage. But in presidential politics, it’s a term of art employed to avoid admitting that you are quitting. The only instance in recent memory where “suspending” a campaign actually meant a temporary removal from the race was when Sen. John McCain took a hiatus from his presidential campaign in 2008 to focus public attention on the economic crisis.

How did this particular malapropism become so ingrained in U.S. political vocabulary? There is actually a legal reason behind the phrasing. Or at least, there used to be. The phrase first became popular in the 1970s, around the same time that the government started offering taxpayer money for campaign matching funds.

Since 1976, the federal government has drawn money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to match up to $250 of an individual’s contribution to each eligible candidate. If you’ve filled out your own taxes, you are probably familiar with the check-box asking if you want to donate $3 to the fund.

As the Federal Election Commission explains:

To qualify for public funding, Presidential candidates and party convention committees must first meet various eligibility requirements, such as agreeing to limit campaign spending to a specified amount. Once the Federal Election Commission determines that eligibility requirements have been met, it certifies the amount of public funds to which the candidate or convention committee is entitled. The U.S. Treasury then makes the actual payments from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. This fund consists of dollars voluntarily checked off by taxpayers on their federal income tax returns.

Presidential candidates have the choice to receive matching funds from U.S. taxpayers to help fund their campaigns, or opt to go it alone. In the past, as is the case now, failed presidential candidates often end up having to pay off significant debts. As a result, candidates in past elections would say they were “suspending” their campaign, so they could lay off staff and stop spending money, without having to actually give up federal money. In effect, they used taxpayer money to help bail out their failed campaigns.

Primary candidates who accept federal matching funds agree to a spending cap of $200,000 in every state. And with states as ideologically diverse as California and Texas, and as politically important as New Hampshire versus, say, Wyoming, it makes little sense for candidates today to agree to those caps.

“It’s the same amount in every state, which makes no sense in such a front-loaded primary process,” Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said.

But that is not the case today. While the verbiage of “suspending” one’s campaign remains, the strict legal reason for saying it has become obsolete. Today, running a campaign is a lot more expensive than public funding caps allow for, so candidates have stopped opting for the public funds.

“It’s not really a relevant consideration anymore,” according to Neil Reiff, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer. “The term ‘suspend’ is not a legal term. It doesn’t really mean anything” to candidates that are not publically funded.

In the 2008 presidential primary, three Democratic candidates—Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Edwards—accepted public matching funds. In the general that year, Sen John McCain also took matching funds, but then-Sen. Barack Obama did not. In 2012, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision cleared a path for virtually unlimited fundraising via super PACs, no major candidate accepted public matching funds. And this cycle, no major candidates have opted to use public funds.

Even though the strict legal reason may be irrelevant today, presidential candidates will likely continue to say they are “suspending” their campaigns when they mean “ending.” Consider it the politician’s swan song: By spinning what is ultimately the worst news for their campaign into what sounds like a temporary hindrance, candidates can exit the national stage with their ego intact, while also leaving the door open to future campaigns.

In politics, verbal gymnastics can be as important as legal gymnastics.