Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at an event at Illuminating Technologies Inc., in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 24, 2014.
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call
December 16, 2014 12:01 PM EST

When Jeb Bush announced Tuesday he is beginning to “actively explore the possibility of running” for the White House in 2016, it may have been the most forward statement on the subject of his Republican colleagues, but it doesn’t mean much.

First off, he’s been thinking thinking about doing this for a while, discussing the possibility both in public settings and in private meetings with donors. And the verbal imprecision aside—is there any other way to ‘explore’ other than ‘actively?’ The possibility of running?—Bush is taking advantage of a gray area in federal election law to go about “testing the waters” instead of establishing a formal “exploratory committee.” Besides keeping his fundraising and spending records private, this will allow Bush and his aides more time to coordinate with outside Republican groups who he’d be forced to be firewalled from should he formally announce.

Bush’s low-tech Facebook announcement wasn’t accompanied by a call to donate or even to sign up for his non-existent campaign website. Instead his statement was designed to placate increasingly jumpy donors wary of a likely 2016 candidacy by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and are under pressure to lend their support to an array of other likely Republican candidates. It also helps him avoid the appearance of playing hard-to-get with the GOP establishment that has been calling on him to swiftly make up his mind.

Indeed, while Bush has said the most, other 2016 candidates have done more in terms of looking to run for the presidency. Besides leadership PACs and political nonprofits, many of the senators and governors spent much of the past year on the road meeting donors, boosting local elected officials, and reaching out to potential campaign staffers.

Larry Noble, the former FEC general counsel and senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says the whole idea of “testing the waters” was designed to be a private process, and there’s no way to tell which other potential 2016-ers may be doing it.

“What you received and spent was never reported if you decided not to run, so there wouldn’t be any embarrassment” he said. In Bush’s case, fundraising will certainly not be an issue, but operating under the radar is a key benefit. Instead of filing monthly reports, he will be required to report his donations and spending only once he decides to run.

Bush said in January he will form a federal Leadership PAC “to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.” While Bush could fly around the country to support local candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states (a practice other Leadership-PAC holders like Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz put to use heavily in 2014) he couldn’t spend more than $5,000 on his presidential flirtations, or else run afoul of federal election law.

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