By all accounts, the United States has a presidential election cycle that is way too long. In fact, the list of articles telling you it’s too long seems about as long.
Someone somewhere tells you we’re more than a thousand days away from the election, or 900 days, or 600 days or, mercifully, only 500 days away. A thousand days? John Kennedy’s presidency lasted only slightly longer.
Simultaneously, we’re told how every other nation has shorter campaign cycles. Way shorter. And we’re told in one poll after the next how most of us utterly hate how long the presidential campaigns have become. Not that you need polling data to tell you this. One popular bumper sticker ably captured the public sentiment: “Giant meteor 2016 — Just end it already.”
Ironically, the current process originated out of widespread frustration with the previous one, when national parties, with their backroom bargaining and closed-door arm-twisting, controlled the selection of candidates. So a process that Americans disliked yielded a process that Americans don’t like any better.
It has become a tune-out. Yes, the media goes bonkers over it, covering announcements like a tent, speculating about who will next declare, or whether they will declare, or why they haven’t declared yet, because they think we actually care. But honestly, do you? Does anyone remember a single word Donald Trump said when he launched his 2024 campaign in November? Yes, November, right after the 2022 midterms, for an election more than 700 days away. Or Nikki Haley’s launch in February (600-plus days away). It’s forgotten because we don’t care. And most of us probably don’t care that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week he’d be heading to Iowa this week. Announced, I say!
Oh, they might care in Iowa right now, or, as The Des Moines Register put it, his “eagerly anticipated Iowa debut.” (Debut? You mean we’ll get an encore?)
How could anyone not get excited over something “eagerly anticipated”? Especially if the announcement caught you by surprise! Most “Iowa political observers” didn’t expect DeSantis to visit the state until after the Florida legislative session ended this spring. So you mean he might even run for president?
Nope. Anymore, when someone else says they’re running, most of us shrug and say, “Sure, whatever. A governor from somewhere? A former someone else? Sure. A brown bear dumpster-diving around Lake Tahoe? Does he have an exploratory committee? Fine. Add it to the list.”
Money is a culprit, we’re told. An early start helps you secure more donors before others jump in, say people with titles that suggest expertise. This, too, is a dubious argument. Months before anyone’s official launch, so-called invisible primaries are underway where aspiring candidates court donors, recruit staff and gauge viability. Nikki Haley spent 2022 raising money through her two PACs. Both are called Stand for America, but one is a nonprofit and is not required to disclose its donors or the monies raised. Bottom line: If you’re planning to run, you don’t have to launch anything to raise money, and Haley’s campaign is already flush with cash.
Uri Friedman argues in The Atlantic that “the length of a campaign is one reason billions of dollars are poured into U.S. presidential contests …. The steep cost of running for president, in turn, only makes the campaign longer; candidates need time to fundraise.”
Let’s see. Longer campaigns cost more money, so we have to raise more money, but raising money makes a campaign longer, which costs more money to run. What’s a candidate to do?
Here’s an idea: Run a shorter campaign. Wouldn’t that require less money?
But Friedman argues that “shorter campaigns may produce ‘happier’ voters, but they may also produce less ‘enlightened’ voters.”
This is ludicrous. Voters become enlightened at the end of the campaign cycle because that’s when they pay attention. Longer cycles don’t mean people have more time to get enlightened. It means they finally got enlightened when they finally became interested in the general election, which wasn’t 700 days before Election Day but somewhere around Labor Day.
Let’s not dwell on the fact that so many think too many American voters are too dumb to be enlightened. (Which yields the frightening prospect that dumb people are electing people who are even dumber.)
But you have to wonder who these campaigns are targeting. Haley’s rally to kick off her campaign (which we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of since) is one of the fundamental things wrong with the quadrennial race for the brass ring: the political rallies. They are nothing but dog-and-pony shows.
Political rallies are nothing more than television productions, highly choreographed to make you think what you’re seeing is the Best. Thing. Ever.
Ever been to a television talk show or one of those midday game shows? An assistant producer stands on stage but out of camera view with one job: encouraging the audience to cheer, applaud and whoop it up like you’re watching... well, the Best. Thing. Ever. They’ll prompt the audience at the close of a segment into commercials, returning from the commercial break or if the guest or contestant utters an applause line. A real-life version of the old applause sign.
That’s television. And that’s what rallies are now, television. Oh, but it’s fun, you’ll say. It’s entertainment! But that’s the point. It plays on the idea that people would rather be entertained than informed. Politics is not entertainment. It’s a serious conversation about what the nation’s future will be and what policies will take us there.
Just watch a rally, any rally. Look at all the American flags and signs with the candidate’s name on them… oh, and the number to text so you can send money. Staffers and interns handed those out as attendees arrived.
The people sitting on risers behind the candidate? Those people didn’t show up early to get a good seat. Organizers hand-picked them in a carefully coordinated process to create a visual that sends — sells, really — the preordained message to viewers so that they say, “This candidate is outstanding!”
It’s called “event management,” a cottage industry from independent outfits to political organizations handling anything from music concerts to the Olympics, business conferences to political conventions, or maybe just a beach clambake. It is strategic marketing designed to make you feel good about a product, a company or a person. Ultimately they’re not managing the event. What they’re managing is you.
It’s a trick that works all too often, exploiting moods, beliefs and pre-existing prejudices in the electorate. When Sarah Palin was introduced as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, a listener called me on my talk radio program (this was in a former life), convinced that she was “the goods.”
“She’s got it!” he exclaimed. “I really think she’s going to be the reason McCain wins this thing.”
We all know what happened, which was an example of what can happen when you have a genuine conversation with someone about actual ideas. Palin had none.
But you can hide such simplemindedness behind the spectacle of a political rally because it’s not about policy or Washington. Rallies are little more than glorified television commercials, a Madison Avenue manipulation to convince you to buy a product, in this case the candidate. That is television’s ultimate and admittedly cynical role: It is a vehicle to sell a product, a brand. And it works because we’re suckers for hucksterism as visual entertainment. And because it’s easier than thinking and figuring things out. You buy Marlboro cigarettes because you like the cowboy imagery, or Snickers because you’re not goin’ anywhere for a while or use Visa because it’s everywhere you wanna be.
The decay of our political process, however, goes beyond the mutual synergy between candidates, consultants and the news media. The electorate shares some of the blame.
Trump made a salient point when he first ran for the White House: If he hadn’t been running, that first Republican debate in 2015 would have had 2 million viewers instead of the record 24 million. Did they tune in for a substantive discussion on substantive issues? Not that there was any. No, they wanted to hear what crass, petulant, imbecilic or simplistic thing Trump would say next because they found it entertaining or, more frighteningly, they considered it serious policymaking.
That explains why the media gives these campaigns and the eventual pre-primary debate circus more attention than it deserves. It’s good television. The networks milked Trump for all he was worth. They still do. Late-night TV hosts and “Saturday Night Live” writers thanked the comedy gods. Media outlets denouncing big money in politics happily soaked advertisers looking to cash in on higher ratings, circulation spikes or swollen web hits. Everyone who can make a buck off it is surely grateful that a new crop of political buffoons is providing grist for their mill and revenue for the coffers.
And that just makes these lengthy campaigns more insufferable. With all the money these candidates raise, you’re telling me they can’t cram all their campaign pitches and sloganeering into half the time they do now? Or that the media, with so many more tools at its disposal, can’t gather the information quickly enough to give voters what they need to make an informed decision.
Apparently not, because once one candidate jumps in, they all jump in, because they’re all convinced they have to get in sooner rather than later. More precisely, someone sold them the idea, and they bought it, meaning the people trying to manipulate you were themselves manipulated by the idea of manipulating you.
Meanwhile, nothing gets done legislatively because too many candidates are engaged in endless political jousting. God forbid these people just do their jobs instead of obsessing over the job of getting the job — or keeping it. We elect these people to find solutions to problems and work together to reach a consensus, not to make empty promises they rarely keep because they’re rarely interested in working together to reach a consensus.
The solution, or perhaps a desirable alternative, is to stop these ludicrous marathons and shorten the campaign season. Start the shamelessness at the beginning of the election year or, if we must do it sooner, maybe after Labor Day or July 4th of the previous year. Happy birthday, America! Have a clown car!
Might history provide an alternative?
On Feb. 27, 1860, 163 years ago, a “large and enthusiastic assemblage” of 1,500 people paid 25 cents (which went to charity) to gather inside the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City. They came to hear a relatively obscure and recently defeated U.S. Senate candidate from Springfield, Illinois, deliver what would be his campaign speech for the presidency.
It was a pivotal moment in our history, when emotions ran high and America was just a year from the start of the Civil War. Yet Abraham Lincoln chose serious language, compelling ideas and reasoned thought to make a decisive difference.
The 7,700-word address on a single topic, opposing slavery and favoring the union, lasted about 90 minutes. Upon finishing, “Mr. Lincoln then bowed, and retired amid the loud and uproarious applause of his hearers — nearly every man rising spontaneously, and cheering with the full power of their lungs,” The New York Herald reported.
What Lincoln accomplished was to convince a dubious Eastern audience that a plain-folk Midwesterner thought to be capable only of crude jokes and prairie gestures could use rational thought and penetrating logic to produce serious analysis.
It was the speech that made Abraham Lincoln president, Harold Holzer recounts in his book “Lincoln at Cooper Union.”
It gets better. After delivering the speech, Lincoln travels to Rhode Island, Massachusetts and then New Hampshire, giving the speech once each. He visits his son, attending prep school in New Hampshire, then returns home to Illinois. And that was it. People write him letters to ask, “What is your position?” He says, “Read the speech.” And he says specifically, “If I were to send you part of it, you would take it out of context and exaggerate it.”
Eleven weeks after his Cooper Union speech, Lincoln was nominated, and the pre-convention campaign came to a close. Not two years, not a thousand days, not 500. Eleven weeks.
That could never happen today. We all know that the culture has changed since 1860, and where political campaigning is concerned, not for the better. But Lincoln’s lesson is as invaluable as it is insightful: to implore candidates to set aside their marketing strategies, shy away from sound bites, discard the advertising slogans, step away from their handlers and engage the electorate in a serious conversation about the serious issues facing the nation.
It’s a lesson well worth pursuing. The gap between the challenges we face as a country and the trivializing of politics as little more than an episode of reality television is so stunning that voters might actually respond to mature, substantial policy discussions with the same enthusiasm as Lincoln’s Cooper Union audience.
That would be the first of several changes to improve the political process of choosing presidential candidates: Treat the electorate like adults rather than some sort of television audience. Don’t entertain; inform. A Cooper Union dialogue in the spirit of Lincoln just might send a message to the electorate that says, hey, we know you want better, and we’re going to talk to you like grown-ups who want an honest, detailed discussion about the issues, our solutions and our defense of those solutions.
Some may think the electorate isn’t smart enough to digest a more scholarly form of argumentation, but if candidates started treating voters like adults, those voters just might respond in a far more productive way than to over-the-top theatrics, empty slogans, policy distortions, melodramatic finger-pointing and childish insults.
The media, too, might consider discarding its usual practice of obsessing over empty chatter about personality conflicts between these donors and those candidates and ignoring the undisciplined outbursts of vacuous attention whores so that we may focus attention on questions of true significance. In today’s digital age, the media has a dramatic ability to reach the country immediately and the resources to unpack those questions with the kind of analysis and nuance that would help voters make better-informed decisions at the ballot box. Many news outlets do it. Many more should.
Lose the debates. They’re just another television production. Cattle calls of 10 people on any stage offering 30-second solutions to the problems we face demean the entire process of running for office. It tests little more than glibness, memory, spontaneity and theatricality when what we should test is a candidate’s judgment, wisdom and experience. Even the debate rules are absurd. Negotiated by each candidate’s top strategists, they typically run dozens of pages and cover everything from who will enter the stage first and from which side, to who gets the first question, to whether the moderator should correct false statements by the candidates (which is typically disallowed). Sometimes the fight over a rule gets so contentious that it’s decided by a coin toss.
Sadly, the public almost never has access to these so-called memorandums of understanding. Well, of course not. What strategist wants their candidate associated with the pettiness encompassing most of these rules?
Instead, urge the early primary states to come together to have bipartisan events. Nothing will take more poison out of the system than requiring the candidates from both sides to be in the same room not to debate but to discuss and converse with an audience of voters. It’s much harder to be vicious and ill-mannered if you are face-to-face in constructive dialogue. And if you can be, you’re pathological and we should disqualify you from running. (Something we failed to do in 2016.)
Finally, before the nominating process begins, challenge every candidate in both parties to pledge that if they become the nominee, they will agree from Labor Day to Election Day (roughly nine weeks) to a series of four or five 90-minute dialogues in places like Cooper Union. Just two adults talking for 90 minutes as if they were in your living room, overseen by a single moderator. Chris Wallace may come to mind, but others like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher have what it takes for that role. It would allow voters to reflect on a signal question: Which of these two potential leaders has the maturity, knowledge and values to lead the country? If we did that, those conversations would change the entire tenor of the campaign process. It might even change what kind of people we elect to the nation’s highest office.
These changes may seem unrealistic, even daunting, but think of them as an exercise in national bar-raising.
We face enormous challenges today, not the least of which is a lack of trust in our institutions. Our political systems seem incapable of addressing these challenges. The American mood is gloomy, tainted by cultural and political polarization. Anger, futility and despair are the watchwords.
It does not help that candidates use the political process to appeal to our base instincts. Perhaps they could find the courage to have genuine adult conversations that appeal to our intellect.
Would today’s candidates be up to that kind of presentation? I don’t know that Lincoln was up to it back in 1860, but he steeled himself and acquitted himself so well — the speech became famous for his declaration, “Right makes might” — that it transformed him from a relatively obscure Illinois favorite son into a viable national contender for his party’s presidential nomination. If we consider Lincoln to be one of our best presidents, why wouldn’t we consider the lesson he provided 163 years ago?
The road to the White House is long, expensive and exhausting. Especially for the voter. It need not be, but sadly, it probably will continue to be.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Civil War began six weeks after the Cooper Union speech; it began the following year.