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Protracted presidential campaigns damage our electoral process

It all started in early 2011, when a wide range of Republican presidential candidates began jockeying for the nomination. Throughout the summer and fall the nation was inundated with a series of debates (almost a dozen already, with a dozen more to go), along with fratricidal fighting, attacks on President Barack Obama, charges, innuendoes, playing loose with facts, and yes, even untruths. It is not only exhausting, but the length of our presidential campaigns is damaging the electoral process itself, and harmful to the nation in a variety of ways.

Moreover, no other democratic nation (especially among those we most identify with) has such a grueling and protracted schedule, and ours has now stretched out to absurd lengths. In January of 2010, the Guardian published this quote about the length of the English election process: “Over the years, Margaret Thatcher was wrong about a lot of things. One thing she got right, however, was the length of British general election campaigns. ‘Three weeks is long enough,’ she pronounced in 1997.” Though the British have Parliamentary elections, her surmise is quite apt.

Similarly, in Canada, the length of election campaigns can vary, but under the Elections Act, the minimum length of a campaign is 36 days. There is no explicit maximum length for a campaign; however, the longest campaign ever (1926) was only 74 days. Most are much shorter.

Again, in Australia, upon dissolution of Parliament, writs are issued for nominations within 10 days; the total length of the election process is generally about 68 days from start to finish.

Many months in, and the process has barely begun
In America we have already endured almost a year of bickering, backstabbing and babble, and the process has just begun. The Iowa caucus is Jan. 3, to be followed by the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10. By March 6, almost half the states will have made a nomination choice – and then we must endure 7 more months of ads and acrimony till Nov. 6.

There are numerous downsides to this lengthy process. First are the insane amounts of money these long campaigns are costing. In the 2008 presidential campaign, it has been estimated, $5.3 billion was spent on ads, committees, getting out the vote, etc. And now, with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, you can be certain even much more will be spent. Other successful democratic countries spend a fraction of this amount, and are probably better governed for it.

Additionally, because the campaigns are protracted, there is ample opportunity for negative campaigning – some of it of doubtful veracity (there are plenty of examples from both parties).  This actually has a negative effect on turnout – something like “a plague on both their houses” –  and the discouraging effect is legitimate. As a corollary to this, negative, aggressive attack ads also reduce trust in government itself (witness the 9 percent approval rating of our current Congress). That’s because government itself is so often demonized during the campaign (most famously demonstrated by Grover Norquist’s famous statement regarding shrinking the size of government … taking it into the bathroom … and drowning it). Such attacks hardly provide confidence in our elected leaders, the role of government, or the act of governance itself.

Danish elections
R. Spencer Oliver is secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Europe Parliamentary Assembly, and has written election observations in more than 100 elections worldwide. He recently wrote an article about the September election in Denmark, noting the differences (and advantages) in the way the Danes hold elections, and the way we do. (As a side note, the Danes had an 87 percent turnout).

The Danes do not allow political TV ads to be run. Oliver points out: “By shortening the official campaign period and taking television ads out of the process, you decrease the money involved in campaigns and increase the genuine democratic debate.

“If there are no such misleading ads on the air, then less time would be wasted by pundits analyzing these ads and reporters correcting the record for a public who may take them as truth. In short, a ban on TV ads would hurt only those who make them, denying them the success they sought – to derail a campaign away from substantive issues.”

A smaller role for cash
Oliver then addresses the money issue: “With the campaign lasting a matter of weeks not years, cash plays a smaller role. In the 2007 election, Denmark’s two leading parties combined, including their public financing, spent less than $8 million. Considering population size, per voter the U.S. candidates spent 11 times as much as their Danish counterparts”

In America, the length of the campaigns, the frequency of debates, and the outrageous costs have deadened the voters to connecting with the issues, and engaging in the debate. Then, of course, there is the time our president (and candidates) spend campaigning rather than governing.  In a sense, we have relegated ourselves to elections in which it is too often said: “Who cares?”

Well, we should care. We must care, if we truly want better government. And making our elections shorter, less costly and more positive would be a vital first step.

Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/02/2011 - 07:03 am.

    The frequency of campaigns has the same beneficial impact on governance as the focus on quarterly results does on long-term business planning. If someone figures out how to correct one, they should migrate the solution to the other.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/02/2011 - 09:58 am.

    At least all of the election money is spent internally. As far as I know we don’t have to import campaign ads from China.
    And the length of the campaign gives us ample time to see what nincompoops some of these candidates are.

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/02/2011 - 10:11 am.

    True, Richard, but no one is disputing the “frequency” of campaigns; we have elected our Representatives every 2 years…Senators every 6…and a president every 4, since the nation was formed. What is at stake here is the “length” (and now character) of those elections.

    A pundit recently noted that elections in the 21st century are far different from those previously because of the internet and proliferation of mass media — thus with the addition of massive funding we not only have the frequency of campaigns (as you note), but also the increasing length (as I note) — plus increasing and relentless intensity throughout the process. I think my term “exhausting” is right on.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/02/2011 - 12:22 pm.

    Sorry Rolf — I can spot a nincompoop much faster than the two years they now campaign. One debate should just about do it!

  5. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 12/02/2011 - 01:17 pm.

    The only downside I can see to shortening election campaigns is that the Daily Show would have much less pre-election fodder. And local media outlets wouldn’t get such a huge boost from campaign ads. I think I can live with both of those consequences.

  6. Submitted by Joe Williams on 12/02/2011 - 02:38 pm.

    I just don’t agree with your perspective, Myles. I respect it, but this long GOP primary has weeded a lot of candidates out, to positive effect. Imagine if Trump or Bachmann had hit their surge around the time of the nomination.

    I agree that the amount of money that gets thrown in over time has an effect, but if you look at Delaware’s primary for senate, a longer campaign likely would have kept O’Donnell off the ticket.

    There are too many candidates out there these days, and some of them need to be weeded out before they get a shot. That isn’t to say that the current or past crop of nominees is perfect, ever.

    I agree with Jonathan Bernstein’s belief that a lot of people aren’t really paying attention right now, the ones that are exhausted by this process are likely those of us that are paying attention.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/02/2011 - 07:28 pm.

    Presidents should be elected for one six year term with a one term limit. That would allow our President to focus on specific goals for that presidency. Congress should be elected to four year terms with a term limit of two four year terms. This should resolve the problem of the endless campaign.

    The length of the campaigns does one thing: provides newspaper editors, journalists and bloggers more content from which to draw. Additionally, it adds greatly to the volume from which rivals can pull gaffes, lies or misstatements. Although, it doesn’t build character, it builds characters. If anything, what needs the most overhaul is the endless 24 hour infotainment cycle which seems to focus on everything but the substance of the issues that we face.

  8. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/03/2011 - 10:14 am.

    Joe
    I cannot agree that longer campaigns weed out poor candidates. Given that theory, should they then be LONGER? I might also remind you, O’Donnell lost. No, I fear we will have both good and bad candidates regardless of length of compaigns.

    Actually you can make a case that the Tea Party gained traction with longer campaigns — by stacking the caucuses and state conventions.

    As for Richard’s comments, they are positive thoughts. Could really be better electoral process. I guess, however, because elections are so deeply embedded in our 200year old Constitution, they are here to stay.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/04/2011 - 10:34 am.

    Miles, would you agree that it is the media that benefits the most from this so-called endless campaign cycle? Media certainly goes about doing their best to promote it. It really amounts to a media economic stimulus package sold as a political campaign.

    The political parties lay out the (cast) candidates. The Media goes about creating narratives for each (character) candidate, and then sells us a storyline about the rise and fall of each candidate. It has often been been compared to a TV reality show.

    I also agree with Joe who says, “that a lot of people aren’t really paying attention right now”. But unfortunately a lot of people don’t realize the huge impact media plays in which candidate gets elected.

  10. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/04/2011 - 07:29 pm.

    Richard
    Agreed. In fact afeer 45 years in the ad agency business, I am convinced one reason the Republicans win is that they are more adept, more savvy, and effective in their use of the media.

    On some issued, I am also convinced,the public is “snowed”; and proof is the frequency in which they vote against their own interests.

  11. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/05/2011 - 09:34 am.

    Myles:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Our legislators and presidents spend too much time getting and keeping their jobs, and not enough time serving the people. And, the money spent is obscene.

    As Rolf indicated in a November Community Voices column, a decision on the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project has been deferred until after the 2012 election. If there were no concern for a second term, the decision could be made, and the business of the people could move forward.

  12. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/05/2011 - 10:19 am.

    Wow! Steve, what a treat…what a victory…having a liberal and conservative agree on something. Kind of like to old days. Thanks!

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