Our long national nightmare of never-ending presidential campaigns
The 2020 presidential campaign is already upon us.
Scarcely hours after the titanic drubbing Democrats delivered to President Trump's GOP in the 2018 midterm elections, the 2020 presidential campaign began in deeply unwelcome earnest. CNN gave us a new power ranking (which they had been doing since July!) of what is expected to be a large and diverse Democratic field. Reporters chased rumors about potential Democratic candidates Beto O'Rourke and Michael Bloomberg. Rarely did anyone in the media step back and ask, "Hey what the hell is going on? This is not what sane people do."
It doesn't have to be this way. America's presidential campaigns are interminable, a slow-burning misery that we inflict knowingly on ourselves despite no constitutional or logical reason for doing so. Like a shared delusion, we all believe this infinity circus to be necessary even though it quite obviously is not. It feels like it's getting worse every cycle, and only the political parties themselves can stop it.
It should come as no surprise that no other advanced democracy on Earth spends 18 months out of a 48-month presidential term picking its next national executive. For instance, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt announced on May 27, 2015 that national elections would be held on June 18 of that same year, barely three weeks later. Yes, Denmark is a small country, but if three weeks are enough time for electioneering in what is probably the world's premier democracy, it should give us pause about the amount of time we devote to ours. In the U.K., Prime Minister Theresa May announced elections on April 18, 2017 to be held less than two months later. Somehow the islanders kept electoral calm and carried on.
The unceasing campaign now seems driven largely by the two parties' desire for countless debates, to begin as early as possible. In the 2016 cycle, Republicans held their first debate in August 2015 — a full 15 months before the general election. Showing some comparative restraint, Democrats faced off for the first time in October 2015. This wasn't even the most egregious orgy of premature arguing in recent history — 11 years ago, Democrats held their first debate in April 2007, setting off an exhausting, yearlong battle just for the nomination. In 2011, Republicans faced off on May 5for a Fox News forum. There's no telling how bad it could get this time around. Honestly, Democrats seem so thirsty for a nominee to take down President Trump that they might start debating tomorrow. The networks would trip over themselves to score each one of these ratings bonanzas.
It wasn't always like this. In 1976, Democratic primary debates didn't begin until February of the election year; eight years later, they began in January 1984. This much more reasonable timeline was abandoned by 1988, when the first debate was held on July 1, 1987. The candidates now seem expected not only to hold a debate before every significant contest on the primary calendar, which stretches from January to June, but to begin those debates half a year before any elections are scheduled at all.
This preposterous arrangement does have its defenders. The argument goes something like this: America is a large country! Between shining seas there are multitudes of bewildered voters whose confusion can only be remedied by a rally and a televised gabfest. Extended general election campaigns are necessary so that candidates can capably traverse the country's mystical vastness with their innovative messages. How else will lesser-known candidates build up their name recognition and convince the public to join them?
This is BS. In fact, due to the Democratic Party's proportional delegate rules, the winner of the primaries has been more or less mathematically settled by the end of March since 1976, with the only drama being if and when the runner-up will concede. Close final tallies in 1984 and 2008, for instance, betray the near-impossibility of catching up to the candidate who built a strong early lead in the opening battles. And while the preponderance of winner-take-all and winner-take-more primaries on the Republican side theoretically gives long-shot candidates a chance to run down the early delegate leader, this has never actually happened. Despite the persistent mythology that John McCain had establishment favorite George W. Bush on the ropes prior to the South Carolina primary, Bush had already won two of the first three contests in a race that was, like one of the current president's steaks, very well done after Super Tuesday.
But don't the eventual nominees need three full months to campaign before the general election? Remember: Big country! Many amber waves of grain and purple mountains' majesty through which to barnstorm! The reality is that, thanks to the antiquated Electoral College, the nominees visit the same dozen swing states over and over and over again during those three or four post-convention months, a task that simply does not require the amount of time we currently devote to it. Hillary Clinton, for instance, visited tiny New Hampshire on five separate occasions in October 2016 alone. With all due respect to Granite Staters, I suspect they would have been able to make an informed decision with considerably less in-person attention from the nominees. And many millions of Americans live in states which received zero post-primary visits from the two candidates, including Georgia, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It was a struggle, but people in those states eventually made up their minds and cast ballots. Real talk: A not-inconsiderable number of Americans would prefer not to be visited at all.
The endless campaign has real costs. By July 2016 fully 59 percent of Americans expressed exhaustion with the campaign, with 110 days of wall-to-wall coverage and ads to go. By the time that desultory race finally wrapped up, I doubt you could have found a single voter who would miss it. Exhaustion contributes to cynicism about our politics and a focus on daily gaffes and spectacles rather than policy. But 18-month campaigns also chew up an amount of scratch equivalent to the GDP of a small, prosperous country. If you chopped the calendar in half, America might be able to save some of the $2.4 billion we collectively spent just on the 2016 presidential election alone.
The parties could sharply curtail our suffering at any time. The primary calendar itself is a joint production between Democratic and Republican elites, who could get together at any time to remedy the bonkers system we have. Rather than a hodgepodge of primaries lasting six months, the parties could agree to hold all primaries in five or six large blocks across two months in June and July. Each of those Super Tuesdays could have a balance of large and small states so that outcomes reflect the country's true diversity. Instead of two dozen debates, we could have four or five, timed to coincide with the block primaries. Not only would this stop the cruel and voter-suppressing practice of holding crucial elections in the middle of winter and finally end the unearned kingmaker status of tiny, white New Hampshire and Iowa, the compressed calendar would save time, money, and our collective sanity. Best of all, presidents might get to spend at least their third year in office governing rather than fundraising and campaigning.
Party elites have been grudgingly responsive to grassroots pressure in the past. Last year, Democrats reduced the number of controversial superdelegates and required states that insist on exclusionary caucuses to make it easier to participate, changes driven by needless controversies that wracked the 2016 nominating contest. It is long past time that we got together and demanded that our party overlords leave us alone for a little while longer.