Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/8/2011 (2097 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Barack Obama, as many an indignant talk-show host is eager to remind his audience, has been loafing by the seaside in the millionaires' playground of Martha's Vineyard. Congress has been in recess for weeks. Millions of humbler Americans are spending a few days fishing, camping or lounging on less exclusive beaches. But the dogged crew competing to become the Republican Party's nominee for president is hard at work, pressing the flesh in states with early primaries. With the first of those scarcely five months away, and the general election only nine months after that, they have no time for leisure.
Presidential campaigns are nigh on interminable. This year's officially began in January, almost 22 months before the election. That was considered sluggish by recent standards: Several of those hoping to be elected president in 2008 formally entered the race in 2006. Anyone jumping in less than 18 months ahead of election day in early November is thought to be cutting things dangerously fine. Yet not that long ago the norm was closer to a year. Bill Clinton signed on for the election of 1992 in October 1991. Richard Nixon did not show his hand until February 1968, a mere nine months before the vote. And back in the halcyon days before 1896, when William Jennings Bryan decided it might help his chances to tour the country giving speeches (it didn't), most candidates considered it undignified to go on the stump at all.
For many -- and not just the patrons of the coffee shops and veterans' posts currently under siege by glad-handing candidates -- the ineluctable expansion of the campaign is a source of distress. The media are constantly (and hypocritically, given their enthusiastic coverage of every cough and stumble) moaning about it. The candidates themselves sometimes join in, too. Earlier this month, Jon Huntsman, one of the current crop, admitted that "running for president is a gruelling, never-ending exercise." Even Karl Rove, the mastermind of George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns, thinks the process is too drawn-out.
Moreover, the endless presidential campaign is just one element of America's ever more intensive politicking. The entire House of Representatives faces the voters every two years. Then there are places like Wisconsin, which held a hard-fought judicial election just five months after last year's general election, and a series of even more bitterly contested recall elections within the following four months. Opponents of the state's governor, Scott Walker, are hoping to put him to a recall vote early next year. That will leave only a couple of months' breathing room before next year's general election, in November, when the victors of this year's recall elections, among others, will be on the ballot again.
Making campaigns shorter and less frequent, proponents say, would have many advantages. Politicians could spend less time feigning admiration for babies and more time governing. They would also not need to raise so much money, with all the pitfalls that entails. In between the caustic campaigns, there would be time for constructive dialogue in Washington. Above all, voters would be less bored and alienated, and thus make wiser choices.
Yet voters in Wisconsin, at any rate, do not seem at all bored or alienated. Turnout at both the judicial and recall elections this year was far above the usual level. Republicans and Democrats in the state agree on almost nothing about the past year's continuous campaigning except that it has helped to energize voters and invigorate local politics. At the polling booths, most Wisconsinites seemed to welcome the chance to pass judgment on their elected officials early and often. Throughout America, even as presidential campaigns have been getting longer in recent years, turnout has risen, points out Christopher Achen of Princeton University -- although the two phenomena do not necessarily have anything to do with each other.
What is more, regardless of when campaigns formally start or finish, politicians always have their eye on the next election. Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Republican nomination last time around and one of the front-runners in this cycle, never really stopped campaigning after 2008. Judging by Obama's continuing tendency to burst into soaring rhetoric, neither has he.
The constant self-promotion has not prevented Obama from trying to get things done, however, since having notched up a few achievements is usually seen as a prerequisite for re-election. Indeed, it is only as the next election has approached that the president has moved to the centre and attempted to strike deals with his Republican adversaries, doubtless in an effort to curry favour with all-important independent voters. And were it not for the abrupt reassessment prompted by the Democrats' drubbing in the mid-term elections last year, he might never have grasped just how disenchanted the electorate had become.
Campaigns are becoming more expensive these days, as well as longer. But the two factors are not always linked. Presidential bids have become dearer in part because the primary season is much more compressed than it used to be, with the bulk of contests clumped together over a couple of weeks. That makes pricey television advertising the only plausible means to reach voters. A more diffuse schedule would allow poorer candidates more time to make an impression on the cheap, at the hustings.
That would not make presidential campaigns any less gruelling -- but that is the best thing about them, according to John Geer of Vanderbilt University. The more battle-tested future presidents are, the better, he argues. The job, after all, can be even more wearing than the campaign. Obama is not getting any tougher playing golf in the sunshine. Having to bow and scrape before the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire for months on end, in contrast, is bound to build character.