I want to first start out by wishing readers a Happy New Year. I hope your 2015 will be a happy and healthy one. I also would like to thank Jason for his initial post on the 2016 Presidential potentials; this will segue nicely into my topic: The length of campaign seasons.
As it stands currently, the campaign season lasts about 18 months from the first hat thrown into the ring, until we decide who gets to preside over this crazy country we call America. This means that beginning around June of this year, we will start to be inundated with all types of stories and information in the hopes of swaying our views. Which leads me to my question, why do we need so much time to figure all of this out?
There are certainly arguments to be made for a long campaign season, such as giving people more time to learn about the candidates and increasing economic activity. Of course, more time simply means more negative advertising, which leads to reduced voter participation along with a voting base that have been utterly confused. So let’s dive into the arguments both for and against lengthy campaign seasons.
One important part of these long campaign periods is that it gives the American people plenty of time to get to know, and maybe grow to hate, these candidates. This is beneficial because time helps to reveal more about a more particular candidate, especially if they have some important skeletons in their closets. It also allows for lesser-known candidates to burst onto the scene, much like Ron Paul was able to do in the 2008 election. Just like in a free-market system, more competition is almost always better for the consumers, or in this case, the electorate.
Another possible reason why longer campaign seasons could be viewed as a positive thing is that it helps stimulate the economy. There are many jobs that are created from the political industry. First and foremost you have the campaign staff, then you have the money that flows into campaign supplies, and of course the large amount dedicated to advertising. In addition, you have locally supplied jobs such as TV news staff and event crews that setup staging, sound, and video equipment. All of this helps to increase economic activity, but I tend to see this argument as a ‘broken window fallacy’. It may employ people but at what cost? That money came from somewhere and is it the best use of that scarce resource? Does it yield a better benefit putting on local town hall events more than it would say paying for swimming lessons for a child, or repairing a family’s broken vehicle?
This is where the wheels fall of the proverbial campaign bus for me. The majority of this campaign money is spent on advertising. Of course it’s no secret which type of advertising gets the bulk of the campaign cash, attack ads! Is this truly money well spent? Does this add value to our democratic elections? I don’t think so.
In addition to redirecting scarce resources to something most would consider frivolous anyways, exorbitant spending on negative ads has shown to increase voter fatigue. In a system which already sees low voter turnout rates as it is, voter fatigue only serves to increase the chances of lesser quality individuals being elected to office. This can be very detrimental to the political health of our nation and I think we are seeing many signs of it currently e.g. low congressional approval, increased partisanship, fewer bills passed than ever before. You also need to factor in that when the incumbents are running for re-election, they are taking large amounts of time off from their jobs as it is for campaigning and fundraising.
Congress tends to get called out for their lack of working days. I thought the same too, until I actually did some research. Contrary to popular belief, they do put in a lot of hours that aren’t counted under their “legislative” days, which is what most people go by. So while they may not spend more than one third of their time in DC, they are still working and putting in long hours. As you can see in the chart Republicans spend more time on ‘Political/Campaign Work’ than they do ‘Legislative/Policy Work’ and Democrats spend more time on ‘Political/Campaign work’ than they do on ‘Constituent Services Work’. For my money, I would like to see those numbers shift so that they reduce the amount of time spent pedaling for cash and more time hashing out effective policy. It would be a win-win for everyone involved.
In such a complex issue such as electoral campaigns, there is no easy or right answer. However, I maintain that shorter campaign cycles, 6 months out for primaries and then 3 months out for the general should give us plenty of time to become acquainted with those who wish to run our government. The short time frame should naturally narrow a campaign’s focus to only the important matters at hand, thereby leaving the distortion of negative ads out of the picture.
The question then becomes how do we achieve shorter campaign cycles? Well, there is obviously no silver bullet here. In fact, because there is so much money involved, it makes it immensely more difficult. We could take an example from the U.K. and institute a cap on how much each party is able to raise. This should surely force campaigns to reduce the length of time they spend campaigning. Another idea would be to institute a public campaign finance system. There are many ways to do this so attempting to hash them out here would be a bit too lengthy for a blog. However, like many issues we face, money is at the core of our problems when it comes this democratic process of elections.
In the end, despite a few benefits longer campaigns may bring, I see the negatives as far outweighing the positives. The time spent by our elected officials on raising funds should be reduced so that they can spend more time doing their actual jobs. The distortion that negative ads incorporate into our election gives way to a poorly informed and oftentimes apathetic electorate. Given that elections are the keystone in our democratic process, we should hold the process to a much higher standard than we do today. The power money extols on this process is undeniable and will only serve to further debase the value and virtue of the vote.
Addendum: I happen to stumble across this Vox article and saw it touched on some of my points, both directly and tangentially. It was written by an actual member of Congress.
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While this may seem like a noble ideal, I don’t see any way of getting there. Though negative ads may negatively influence the electorate overall (diminishing participation), they’re actually more effective INDIVIDUALLY than positive ads. So the people running (and paying for them) have every incentive to continue doing so.
As far as the shorter campaign, I don’t see how we can convince contestants not to start as soon as possible. Certainly, the ‘invisible primary’ we’re in right now can continue regardless of fundraising limits. And most campaigns aren’t really reaching out to voters right now anyway – most of whom won’t begin tuning in until late this year. Instead, much of the media coverage we see now comes out of a media-bias toward predictions and anything ‘new,’ making presidential contests over-reported compared to others.
The biggest thing I’d like to tackle here is time spent fundraising. There’s a strong case to be made that after a certain level fundraising is basically meaningless. Once your message is out there, supersaturation is pointless. But those in the fundraising/advertising industry aren’t going to push that message. And individual candidates are too nervous to take the risk. (This is similar to the exaggerated fears of losing a primary by Republican incumbents – for most it’s not going to happen but they all act as though it’s a reasonably high probability event.) I don’t know how to convince candidates to ditch their consultants in this regard.