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Commentary: How long is too long for a presidential campaign?

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The presidential election is still a depressingly long nine months away, and it can’t get here soon enough.

Nine more months of game show-style town halls and debates with moderators who act more like Wink Martindale than Walter Cronkite.

Nine more months of candidates reaching for rehearsed quips crafted to keep them in the churn of the 24-hour news cycle that drives attention and donors.

Nine more months of triangulating back-biting. Nine more months of mud-slinging tweets. Sad! Nine more months of political ads about who got what done.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (left), Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas on February 19, 2020. - JOHN LOCHER / AP
  • JOHN LOCHER / AP
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (left), Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas on February 19, 2020.

At least someone is getting something done. A poll released last week from the research firm Gartner found that the 2020 presidential election has hampered the ability of nearly half of all employed Americans, 47 percent, to get work done.

A third of respondents acknowledged they spend more time consuming political news while at work. More than a third, 36 percent, reported that they have avoided talking to, or working with, colleagues because of their political views.

The sample size of respondents was small at just 500 workers nationwide. But their responses reflect what many of us have already observed: The election is driving us to distraction.



American elections are absurdly long compared to those in other countries.

Consider that we’ve already been living with the current campaign circus for a year. Most of the Democratic candidates still in the race declared their candidacy in January or February of 2019.

By contrast, Canada wrapped up a campaign season last year in a tidy six weeks, roughly the average length of campaigns in the United Kingdom and Australia. In Japan, campaigns are restricted to 12 days.

Those countries have legally fixed campaign periods, mostly by virtue of being parliamentary democracies in which the dissolution of parliament is the proverbial election-season starting pistol.

The United States can’t dissolve Congress for 18 months, although sometimes it feels like Congress is perennially out to lunch.

But recent reforms in Mexico, which has a presidential system, shortened the campaign season there from 186 to 90 days.

Candidates in the last campaign in France, which selects a president through a two-ballot election, announced their candidacies six months before the first ballot. Those who secured enough votes to make it through to the second ballot had two weeks to campaign.

There ought to be a law limiting election campaigns in the United States. But who am I kidding? A country that can barely limit campaign contributions isn’t going to limit campaigns.

Of course, there’s evidence that elections processes elsewhere wouldn’t work here.

An exhaustive 2015 study that analyzed more than 26,000 polls in 45 countries since 1942 found that presidential voters need more time to assess candidates than voters in a parliamentary system, in which prime ministers are appointed by their party.

Whether American voters glean a better understanding of candidates and policy issues than their counterparts elsewhere, though, is unclear. Another study concluded that voters better grasp the economic conditions in their country when campaigns are “long enough” — a threshold defined as at least six weeks.

Still, a shorter presidential campaign would have its advantages — namely by not distracting and exhausting voters and requiring a candidate to amass hundreds of millions of dollars to stay in the race.

American presidential campaigns weren’t always ultramarathons. A century ago, Warren Harding made a low-key announcement of his presidential candidacy a mere 321 days before the 1920 election.
Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail in Chicago in 1976. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail in Chicago in 1976.
It wasn’t until the contentious 1968 Democratic convention prompted reforms to wrest control of the presidential nominating process from party elites that the primary process we know today took off. The result was the seemingly interminable campaigns of the modern presidency.

In 1975, Jimmy Carter was the first to test the theory that a candidate could build momentum in the primaries by campaigning early. Ever since his win a year later, the prevailing wisdom has been that the early bird gets the worm.

But voters get stuck with the dirt.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.