When Joe Biden announced that he would not be running for President, the reason he cited was that there just wasn’t enough time left to mount a successful campaign. This was more than a year before the election. But Biden was right; after all, the campaign had officially begun a full 596 days prior to Election Day when Ted Cruz announced his candidacy.
It seems like we’ve been hearing about the 2016 presidential race since the day the polls closed in 2012. We’re a year away and I already have campaign fatigue. I can’t face another 12 months of debates and scandals and polls (oh my!) The thought of covering another presidential campaign drove Jon Stewart off the air; he just couldn’t take it anymore.
Our neighbors to the north just held an election for Prime Minister. Unlike our regularly scheduled elections, in Canada federal elections occur when the Prime Minister asks for one. Incumbent PM Stephen Harper (who did not win re-election) was sharply criticized for the extreme length of this campaign. CBC News called it a “mid-summer marathon.” The Canadian Press reported that this “grueling” campaign was the costliest ever and the longest since 1872. The Globe and Mail said it was “endless.” Just how long was this record-breaking campaign?
11 weeks. That’s right, less than three months.
And Canada is hardly alone in holding such brief campaigns for its highest office. Many countries have laws limiting the duration of campaigns. NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben wrote, “In Mexico, a 2007 law limited the length of campaigns. In Argentina, advertisements can begin only 60 days before the election, and the official campaign itself can start only 25 days after that. In France, the presidential campaign is generally only two-weeks long.”
Who benefits from America’s protracted campaign season? Not the candidates, who can’t possibly do the job they currently have properly because they have to spend so much time raising money and making appearances. Not the citizens, who don’t need two years to make up their minds. I already know who I’m voting for, and I’d venture to guess that the majority of Americans do too. Why can’t the Presidential race be more like the Super Bowl and less like the World Series?
As far as I can figure out, it’s the media that really win. It gives them something to talk about. And talk about. And talk about. The Atlantic put together a daily dashboard tracking mentions of the candidates on Aljazeera America, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, FOX Business, FOX News, LinkTV, and MSNBC. As of November 1, 2015 Donald Trump had received over 121,000 mentions, followed by Hillary Clinton at almost 111,000, Jeb Bush at over 62,000 and Bernie Sanders at over 25,000. That’s a whole lot of air time.
Then there’s the media coverage of the media coverage. Post-debate analysis includes not only an assessment of the candidates’ performances, but evaluations of the network and its reporters hosting the debate. CNBC has been widely blasted for its “gotcha” questions and time-wasting banter during the Republican debate it hosted last week. Google “CNBC GOP debate” and you get over 15 million hits.
And it’s not just news shows anymore. When candidates began appearing on talk shows and poking fun at themselves on SNL several years ago, I thought it was endearing and humanizing. Now they’re EVERYWHERE, and it seems degrading to see the people vying to be the leader of the free world prostrating themselves in front of every talk show host in town. I had the TV tuned to the Today show one morning last week and Access Hollywood Live came on next. I was aghast to see the hosts of this Hollywood gossip show offering their critique of the last GOP debate. Co-host Billy Bush may be related to Jeb, George et al, but come on…it’s not Meet the Press. They discussed at length whether or not Donald Trump has stubby fingers. I kid you not. This is how we’re choosing our next president?
The media also benefit is as the recipient of all of those advertising dollars. Political TV ad spending will top $4.4 billion for federal races this year, up from $3.8 billion in 2012. Jeb Bush’s superPAC has already raised more than Obama’s main superPAC did in all of the 2012 election. As of the end of September, Hilary Clinton had raised about $75 million since entering the race…well on the way to her $100 million goal for this year, a large part of which will likely go to TV spending.
But do all those ads work? A 2010 study concluded that while ads do have an impact on voting, the return on this investment is highly questionable. 1,000 more ads for a candidate across a whole campaign resulted in a 0.5 percentage point improvement in that candidate’s share of the vote. Why spend all this money if the ROI is so low? Because if your competitors are doing it, you have to do it too just to be in the game. It’s the cost of entry.
Savvy political operatives have found loopholes in all of our well-intentioned campaign finance reforms, rendering them useless. We haven’t been able to limit fundraising by passing laws restricting campaign donations. Maybe we’d be more successful stopping the spending madness by passing laws restricting the length of the campaigns instead, and our politicians could get back to the business of governing instead of spending half their time focusing on getting elected.