Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

It’s presidential election season here in the good old U.S. of A. Already, 23 candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to run for the most powerful position in America. We’ve already had the first presidential debate, the statisticians are hard at work taking opinion polls of American voters and publishing their results, and the candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their campaigns.

Did I mention the election isn’t until November of 2016?

The United States has – by far – the LONGEST election cycle of all the world’s democracies. Most countries’ campaigns for office begin and end over a matter of weeks or months. Canada is currently in the middle of its longest election cycle ever – 78 days. Germany’s longest election cycle was 114 days. In the United Kingdom, people complained last year about a “long campaign” that lasted 139 days. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for the White House 596 days before the election will actually take place.

To put that in perspective, a baby conceived today will not only have already been born, but will be nearly six months old when Election Day arrives. So, why are our elections here in the United States just so darn long? Especially when you consider:

It seems on the surface like long elections are bad for candidates, as it means they have to spend more time and money campaigning to capture a smaller voter base. However, it turns out that there are several contributing factors to America’s ridiculously long campaigns, each one pushing for longer and longer campaigns and making it hard to reverse the trend.

Factor #1: Primaries

Ballot box image from the Smithsonian Institution

Much like the madness of Black Friday, the overly-long U.S. presidential campaign cycle came on gradually, over time. George Washington didn’t even have to run for president at all, he was just sort of proclaimed president by unanimous consent (the only president to have that distinction). Later, when political parties started to become a thing, party leaders would get together at a national convention and decide who their candidate would be in the big contest. Often, this involved shady backroom deals, especially as late 19th-century American politics became dominated by ruthless political machines that bought votes and put forth candidates they could control. To counteract this, reformers began pushing for political parties in the United States to instead choose their candidates through primary elections, a sort of pre-election election to choose who would run for office in the final contest in November.

Today, both the Democrats and Republicans choose their presidential candidate through a system of primaries held on a state-by-state basis. Instead of every Republican and Democrat in America voting all at once, each state decides for itself when it will hold its primary. This can be a problem for states that vote late in the game, since it means that by the time their voters get a say in which candidate they want, it is entirely possible (even likely) that one candidate will already have won enough support to move on to the November prize. This gives each state an incentive to move its primary as early as possible, to vote ahead of everybody else. Iowa and New Hampshire have even written it into their laws that their primaries are held before anybody else’s. This has pushed the primaries earlier and earlier every year; in 2012, Iowans voted on January 3!

Both the Democrats and Republicans decided that from 2016 onward, most states would be barred from holding the primaries before March. However, exceptions were granted for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Why them? Because… um… reasons. (No, really – in an interview with Fox News, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee explained the exception by saying “It is years and years and years of history, and that’s a debate, too. It is what it is.”)

Factor #2: First mover advantage

Early bird image by OpenClipartVectors

In 1960, John F. Kennedy shocked Americans by announcing he was running for president in January. This gave him media attention, and soon he had an advantage over his rivals when it came time for the primaries, since his name was already on everyone’s lips. The message was clear: announce early, get your name out there, get attention. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October, just over a year before the 1992 election. In 1999, George W. Bush announced his own candidacy in June.

Again, this trend of announcing earlier and earlier is a gradual thing that snuck up on us over time. It simply behooves candidates to get their names out there as early as possible to build momentum, garner attention, and put your name in voter’s minds as they have to wade through the list of candidates on primary election day. The 2016 election may be more than a year away, but considering how many candidates have already announced that they are running, anybody who tries to enter the contest now would have no chance of winning, since they would be at a disadvantage in fundraising, gaining media attention, and building a support base.

Factor #3: The media

News image by Gerd Altmann

This brings us to the final factor pushing us to the never-ending campaign: the news. For years, news coverage of election-related headlines has come earlier and earlier. Speculation and horse-race polling get views and clicks, and as we’ve covered before, this is what the advertisers who keep the lights on are looking for. Besides, if candidates are making announcements, giving speeches, and holding debates, that is newsworthy stuff. What, is the news media not supposed to cover that? Of course they will.

Still, political pundits and analysts build their careers upon talking about who is probably or possibly going to make what move and why. Did you know that news sites were talking about the 2016 election before the results of the 2012 election had even been counted? This article from the USA Today discusses the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden running for president in 2016 – on Election Day in 2012! This article from Salon talks about a gambling firm’s predicted odds of various possible candidates running for office in 2016 – two days before the 2012 ballots were even cast! This means that the news media has been talking about next year’s election continuously for the past three years!

Sheesh! Under that kind of media pressure, is it any wonder candidates want to announce early?

Thus, it seems, we are stuck with election cycles that run nearly two years for the foreseeable future, unless and until these trends start to reverse. I guess we’re all simply going to have to put up with it for a long, long while.

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2 Responses to Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

  1. Pingback: California’s Late Voter Blues | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: The Strange Politics in the History of U.S. Presidential Elections | Cat Flag

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