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.
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.