Patricia Nell Warren

Has Anybody Seen the Presidential Campaign Lately?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | July 15, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: campaign reform, election campaigns

Aren't presidential elections supposed to have the drama and brevity of the Olympic Games, with the winner getting the Oval Office instead of a gold medal? Lately this election feels more like watching paint dry.

Most democratic countries have sense enough to get their election campaigns done in a bubble of intensity lasting a few weeks or a couple of months. This way, they can guarantee maximum attention by voters. Canada imposes a minimum of 36 days - their longest campaign in history was 74 days. But the U.S. is always trying to do it differently...even if different means disastrous. The 2008 Presidential race has been going on since the dinosaurs died, and there's still three-and-a-half months to go before we get to vote.

I'm not the only one who feels that way. In April, the nonpartisan Pew Research Study published a poll showing that 65 percent felt the campaign had dragged on too long, and had gotten too negative - up from 57 percent in February. That fatal figure must be up to 75 percent by now.

Is that why the media make a mountain out of every election molehill that comes along? Do they need non-stories to fill the dead space on days when not much happens on the campaign trail? Every little knee-jerk and misspeak reported as seriously as the war in Iraq? Like the "emasculation" thing that exploded the other day around Sen. Jesse Jackson's remark about Obama's manhood? You could just see the CNN and Fox guys trying to blow it into a major historical event (even though they're all too emasculated to even use the word "penis" on TV).

Americans have worried a lot about spending limits on campaigns. How about time limits on campaigns? How about not trivializing the whole wonderful democratic process by dragging it on and on...and on? If boring us all to death is somebody's brilliant new strategy for stealing elections, it's going to succeed.

Of course, America does need to allow some months for the candidates to raise all those billions of dollars they need for funding their campaigns. But maybe candidates should be required to do their fundraising before the campaign. (And maybe they'd need way less money if the campaign were squeezed into 75 days.)

I googled around to look for controversy and commentary on length of U.S. campaigns, but didn't find much. In the mid-1990s Rice University professor Randolph Stevenson published a paper asking if the length of a campaign really mattered. He quoted some dusty studies from the 1940s and 1950s that suggested "voting behaviour" wasn't affected very much by campaigns. Today, the consensus seems to be that the longer a campaign is, the more fully the voting public can become informed on the issues.

Maybe that's a degree. But there's a point of no return, and we have clearly passed it.

Meanwhile the ACLU is in court insisting that a Maryland law is unconstitutional because it limits the amount of time people can have political signs stuck on their lawns. The law restricts political speech, says the ACLU. Maybe. But leaving those sun-faded signs out there indefinitely is pushing the envelope on accumulating inattention. After a few weeks, nobody sees the signs any more.

Yes, indeed. Campaign reform is desperately needed. But let's add duration to the long list of things that need to be fixed.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 15, 2008 9:21 AM

Patricia if you throw in elimination of the electoral college and all votes thereby counting equally I am 100% your man. I once sat through a speech of someone supporting the electoral college saying that it would be wrong because it would make us a "pure democracy" and there has been no history of one ever surviving. In that countries are not passenger pigeons I think we have grown beyond that notion as well. The English laugh at us over the length of our election season.

Luckily, New Year's Day 2008 made a natural barrier on the calendar for the "official" start of the prez campaign --- but we all know what 2007 was like, an entire year of "unofficial" jockeying for position, complete with televised debates which themselves reflected about a year of planning.

Because the US has 50 different legislative bodies each controlling their own little part of the primary process, it seems that it would now be difficult to trim the prez campaign shorter than ten months ... ten months!

And finally, lurking in the punditsphere is the concept that one of the 2008 VP picks will be tentatively anointed as the presumptively-presumptive prez candidate of his or her party in 2016 ... 2016!

Have we gone crazy? Why is it that we can speculate about our political candidates eight years in advance, but we can't (or are not willing to) think about the size of the polar ice cap (it will be totally gone), the temperature of the oceans (will they be two degrees hotter, and barren of any remaining live corral reefs?), or our National Carbon Footprint (NCF?) eight years from now?

Robert...I would gladly thrown in the electoral college. It's a leftover from the Holy Roman Empire (college of HRE electors, hello), and a day when the popular vote was not only unwieldly (travel for poorer people) but not wanted by the elite.

John R. Selig | July 15, 2008 4:16 PM

Here are some suggestions for electoral reform:

1 - Have two presidential primaries - one for smaller states and one for larger states and hold them 6 weeks apart sometime in June. Ther reason for two is so that the candidates must visit the small states and not just the larger states.

2 - Conventions - Have them both in late August.

3 - Timing - Have the presidential election as it is now scheduled (second Tuesday in November). Polls around the country will all be open for 24 hours (the same 24 hours. If the polls on the East Coast open 7AM on Tuesday and cloes at 7 AM on Wednesday, then the polls on the West Coast open at 4 AM on Tuesday and close on 4 AM on Wednesday). that way the media doesn't cover results before all polls close.

4 - Electoral College - Do away with the Electoral College. All states go to proportional voting. None of this winner take all. I know, that entices candidates to focus on larger states but it isn't fair when my voted really doesn't count when the opponent gets more votes in my state.

5 - Fairness - Bring back the fairness doctrine and require the electronic media to provide free airtime for candidates. Require the TV networks to cover debates and conventions, not everybody has cable or satellite dishes.

6 - Voting - All voting methods must include a paper trail. Voter fraud should be investigated and punished severely. Presidential elections should be governed by federal laws, not each state regulating voting for their state.

7 - Congress - Do away with lobbyists being able to contribute to campaigns. All campaigns funded federally. The current system requires Representatives and Senators to start running for reelection the day they take office. To do so they all must sell out to the lobbies (both Democrats and Republicans. Pay members of Congress good salaries so that they can afford to have a home in DC and in their home districts. They are not allowed to receive fees for speaking engagements or books while they are in office. They are not allowed to become lobbyists for 10 years after they leave office. Part of me would love to see lawers and preachers banned from serving in Congress but I will get too much push back on that one.

8 - Citizens Required to Vote - All American citizens should be required by law to vote as happens in Australia. As American citizens we have certain rights (though as LGBT Americans our rights are limited). Along with those rights come responsibilities like paying taxes and serving jury duty. One of the responsibilities should be voting in every election (as long as one has the right to vote "none of the above"). If somebody doesn't vote then there should be some sort of penalty (a tax or harder to renew drivers licenses). the penalty cannot be too punctuative but there should be one so that citizens see a benefit in voting. We have one of the lowest voter turnout percentages in the world. It is pitiful. Of course most Americans don't know how many branches of government there are, which branch declares war or how many U.S. Senators there are (but they do know who won American Idol and when Paris Hilton received her last hair extensions)!

9 - Education - How about improving our public schools above the pitiful level they are at right now where only 70% of high school students graduate. Public schools in the 50 largest American cities are only graduating 50% of their students. Maybe if we improve education our citizens might learn something about our government, especially if they are required to vote. By the way, the biggest problem with our schools isn the teachers or the principals, it is the lack of parental involvement.

Definitely should make it shorter, although there isn't a way to really shut people up about it too far in advance. People started talking about Barack vs Hillary after the 2004 democratic convention.

I don't know if all that'll work, John. I'd be in favor of rotating regional primaries myself just because it'd make ad buys cheaper and reduce air travel. And make all elections federally funded wouldn't really work because people not running for office or associated with the party often run ads (like the 527's are already doing for McCain). It's hard to make a distinction between those orgs and people just talking about who they like and why (like on blogs or other community forums). Campaign finance is definitely more complicated a problem than just turning to federal funding.

John -

Requiring citizens to vote is an interesting concept. Although I'd love to see it put into action in the way it is in Australia, how would this function for various disenfranchised communities in the U.S.? I don't know much about Australia's system - so I don't know how they deal with criminal records, inconsistent identity papers, undocumented individuals, and the like. Obviously America's voter turnout is disgraceful, but how would a law that penalizes citizens for not voting work for transgender Americans? My documents currently don't all match up and as such, my ability to walk into a polling site and cast a ballot is limited. I’m unwilling to let the state determine my gender identity for me or my name, since I have fulfilled the requirements under Common Law to affect a name change. This means that I vote by mail under my chosen name and gender marker (which I’m sure possibly constitutes voter fraud by the governments standards). As much as I’d like to see people engage in their civic duties, I find the idea of more “Big Brother” type measures frightening, especially given my lack of rights and protections due to my gender variance. This seems like another well intentioned idea (REAL ID Act is another one) with unforeseen and harmful consequences for the more vulnerable sections of our nation.

Patricia, I'm totally with you. Boring!

John R. Selig | July 15, 2008 8:11 PM

Anybody interested in more information on compulsory voting in Australia for federal elections (which isn't the only country that requires it), here is a link to a recently updated brief from the Australian Parliament called "Compulsory voting in Australian national elections:"

Personally, when I meet somebody who hasn't voted and they complain about the current state of things, I always tell them that I have no interest in their opinion. Since they didn't vote I consider them part of the problem.

I certainly understand challenges faced by folks in exercising their votes but there is early voting and absentee ballots available so most people should be able to vote. Australia gets over 95% voter turn out.

On another topic, I recommend a new book called "How Stupid Are We? Facint the Truth About the American Voter by "New York Times" best selling author and founder of Geroge Mason University's History News Network. Here are just a few of the hair raising statistics included in the book:

1 - Only 2 out of 5 voters can name the three branches of the federal government.

2 - Only 1 in 7 can find Iraq on a map.

3 - Only 1 in 5 know that we have 100 U.S. Senators.

Unless this is fixed we are in deep trouble. I think mandatory voting is one way to make being informed about how government works more important. My husband and I live in Texas and a Constitutional Amendment against same-sex marriage passed with only 16% of voters turning out to vote.

It feels so long because it started so early this season. Shoot, I've been hearing about Evan Bayh and 2008 since 2001. Now it looks like he might get Veep after all. *sigh*