Thomas C. Patterson is a retired physician and former Arizona state senator who lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Last fall, a TV news host advised viewers to “fasten their seat belts“ because they were now in the exciting final countdown to the presidential election — which was, at that point, 15 months in the future!
Strange as it once would have seemed, the comment actually made some sense because the news cycle had been filled for three years with daily analysis of the latest poll results and speculation from the campaign trail. Somehow, we have bumbled our way into extraordinarily long election seasons.
Endless campaigns have not evolved in response to public demands or the efforts of good government reformers. On the contrary, a majority of Americans report feeling fatigued and believe that presidential campaigns run too long.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Presidential candidates were originally chosen by Congress. By the mid-19th century, national parties had formed, and candidates were selected in smoke-filled rooms at their conventions. After World War II, presidential primaries emerged as a way for rank-and-file party members to participate in the selection process.
By 1960, there were 16 state primaries. John F. Kennedy was nominated when his strong showing in West Virginia convinced Democrats a Catholic could be a viable candidate. After Democrats changed the rules following the contentious 1968 convention, even more states began conducting primaries.
Each new reform had the effect of lengthening the campaign season. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the obscure governor of Georgia, won the nomination by getting a jump on the competition in the January Iowa caucuses. Ambitious politicians ever since have taken note.
In the late 20th century, the race among states to bolster their influence by holding earlier primaries was on. By 2008, four-fifths of the states were conducting their primaries by March.
Campaigns begin long before the primaries. Active campaign staffs for the 2024 election by now have been operating for years. In the past, early in the election year was often the time candidates declared. This year, the train has left the station already. Deadlines for many primaries have passed. It would take a herculean effort to jump-start a campaign at this point.
Some commentators applaud the democratization of the candidate selection process. But super long campaigns have several unfortunate consequences.
Financing a long campaign is a money-draining effort that favors deep pockets. Most candidates are unable to self-fund, so they are obliged to spend immense amounts of time and do lots of promising to raise the necessary millions.
Voters may complain about campaign length, but the media is fine with it. Horse race stories are easy to write and sell well because they are simple to understand and naturally involve human interest, as the candidates become known to voters.
Meanwhile, stories that are consequential for all Americans — like the deliberations of the Federal Reserve board, the growing bellicosity of America’s existential enemies or the details of energy policy — get scant attention.
Campaigns affect governance, too. It’s well known that the more challenging, risky issues are harder to tackle in an election year. When every year is, in effect, an election year, then it’s never the right time to do the heavy lifting.
Forgiving student debt and paying outrageous, unwise sums for hostage ransoms, especially for celebrities, is catnip for weak, vote-seeking politicians. On the other hand, anything that reeks of fiscal restraint or sacrifice for the future public good is studiously ignored. Entitlement reform is out of the question.
Campaigns could, theoretically, be defended for allowing voters to more thoroughly vet the candidates and so make better-informed decisions. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. We have elected mostly mediocrities in the last half-century. The process this cycle seems to be producing the most incompetent, dishonest and disliked candidates in memory. We can do better.
Other modern democracies don’t subject themselves to such an exhausting ordeal. Elections in Canada, the U.K. and Australia — all admittedly parliamentary systems — are legally limited to about six weeks. Nobody is clamoring for longer elections in these countries.
America has short presidential terms and long election seasons. As inertia and populism continue to dog our politics, and the problems pile up, maybe we also should consider limiting our costly, dysfunctional campaigns.
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