Americans beset by perpetual campaigns

Other democracies have laws that limit their presidential campaigns to a matter of a few months or weeks.



December 27, 2022 - 3:12 PM

People listen to Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) speak during the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 11, 2019. (Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

One characteristic of American life distinguishes our country from all other democracies: Our political campaigns are never-ending. The moment one election cycle ends, the nation begins focusing on the next. Even if candidates have not formally declared their intentions, we have already begun the 2024 campaign. These extended campaigns have led to increased partisanship, distrust and anxiety.

Other nations do not have extended campaign seasons. In Mexico, a law stipulates that campaigns start 90 days before the election, with an additional 60-day period for candidates to compete for the nomination. In Canada in 2015, the campaign season lasted 11 weeks, making it the longest campaign in that country’s history. In France, campaigning prior to the first round of a presidential election can last no longer than two weeks. In Argentina, the campaign is limited to 35 days, although advertising is permitted to begin a few weeks earlier.

The First Amendment, guardian of American liberty, in this instance stymies political reform. The U.S. can’t make the strict campaign rules other nations live under. But one area where reform is possible is the primary system.

For much of American history, party leaders chose candidates to run in the general election, and there was little or no public campaigning. A century ago, however, citizens expressed a desire for greater public involvement in the process. This led to the introduction of caucuses and primaries — and some campaigning. However, no one at that time could have imagined the perpetual campaigns of today. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower remained in Europe as NATO commander until five months before being elected president.

TWO FACTORS — earlier delegate selection and the mountains of money pouring into campaigns — have led our nation down this path. In 1976, only 10% of national convention delegates were selected by March 2 of election year; by 2008 that number had grown to 70%. The earlier selection of delegates forced campaigns to begin earlier and earlier.

There’s nothing sacrosanct about the primary system as we know it, and the Democratic Party just demonstrated that reform is possible by rearranging its presidential contests. The parties could do the country a favor by jointly agreeing to move all their primaries into the late spring and summer, perhaps sparing voters a few months of presidential politicking.

The bigger influence on long campaigns, however, is the huge amount of cash available to pay for advertising, staff and events. The nation is overdue for campaign finance reform, though the Supreme Court has made anything substantial a pipe dream for now.

The electorate is exhausted from the endless campaigning — and now the litigating of elections after they are held. This cultivates cynicism and erodes confidence in government. Powerful and moneyed interests would like to keep long campaigns in place: It will take a groundswell of citizen advocacy to bring about an improved system.