We made it. Twenty months ago, on March 23, 2015, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the Republican Party. As of last night, the next president of the United States has been elected (Surprise! It’s not Ted Cruz). In December 2015, 11 months ago and a mere nine months into the 2016 election, a report from the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Americans surveyed believed the election was too long — but is it really? Are lengthy elections a staple of a healthy democracy or simply an unnecessary creator of cortisol? To find out, we need to take a step outside The Echo Chamber.
Elections were not always this long. In 1960, JFK skipped out on the Iowa caucus entirely and jumped into the race only 10 months before election day. Jimmy Carter, an unknown governor from Georgia, launched the modern campaign when he decided to take advantage of the newly-reformed primary process and focus entirely on a previously unimportant state — Iowa. This forced candidates into a race to the bottom of the calendar, beginning their campaigns earlier and earlier in the season. But President Carter’s strategy has become a successful method for unknown candidates to rise to the top.
Bill Clinton announced his candidacy 397 days before the 1992 election. This enabled him to win the presidency. As of January 1991, nearly two years before the election, the former governor of Arkansas had a projected 1.7 percent of the primary vote, according to polling averages. Jimmy Carter fell into the same boat — early polling had him at a mere one percent. More recently, Bernie Sanders, an unknown senator from Vermont, was able to amass millions of dollars through small, personal donations because his campaign began 19 months before Election Day. One of the most underrated benefits of our lengthy election cycle is that it allows no-name candidates to become brand-name celebrities. Still, Canada’s longest election was 78 days, Japan is limited to 12 and France 14, so what’s so different about these countries?
Most countries with short election cycles either have legal limits on campaign lengths or are parliamentary systems. Unlike parliamentary elections, we vote for a candidate and not a party, looking at both who a person is and what they stand for. Finding out who your candidate truly is takes time — as we’ve seen with Donald Trump. If not for over 500 days of election coverage, we may have uncovered Trump’s “grab them by the p—” statement one year into a Trump presidency.
But there are plenty of downsides to our lengthy elections. An incumbent president running for re-election gets two years of real politicking until they are right back to fundraising. Even if they are not running for reelection, an impending election can eclipse the real policy issues of the time. Money is another problem. Even if grassroots campaigns rely on small donations over long periods of time, the 2016 presidential race will still cost upwards of $2.6 billion, making it nearly impossible to maintain financial solvency.
Does our ridiculously-long campaign cycle make room for non-established candidates or is it simply an unnecessarily long reality TV show? That is for you to decide. For now, I just hope that you’ve enjoyed sometime outside The Echo Chamber.