Two and a half years, up to 6 billion dollars, 17 candidates since the presidential campaign officially launched and we are exactly where we thought we'd be: President Obama and Governor Romney in a dead heat 62 days before the election. We Americans have become accustomed to the long, drawn out, expensive campaigns featuring countless ads, debates and stump speeches, influencing polls that influence media and media that influence polls. Our representative democracy has evolved into a circus show brought to you voters by very wealthy influencers.
Somewhere along the way, the terms "campaigning" and "fundraising" have become inseparable.
But can we imagine it any other way?
Yes, what has evolved over the last forty years is a vicious cycle: the need to be on television created a voracious appetite for money which gave enormous power to the funders. Break the need for television and you break your need for money. Television was the revolutionary technology of a half a century ago, it revolutionized politics and not all together in a good way. The current revolution is digital.
We are at a turning point again. Technology has unleashed more effective messaging tools for nearly everyone -- advertisers, companies, nonprofits and, yes, even political candidates. And just like everything else that comes out of our free market world, the more things evolve, the cheaper they become.
What if presidential elections were cheaper? Shorter? More effective? Well, if the internet and social media flattened and leaned up business -- believe it or not -- it may soon do the same for presidential politics.
Pundit David Frum dreams of a day when America's presidential election will function more like Great Britain's parliamentary system -- short campaigns focused on quality debate -- with the "country tuning in" instead of riding a two year train of political pain.
Sounds ideal right? Sadly Great Britain's parliamentary model is not meant for a system like America's. Although it model would take power from special interests, it would go right back into the hands of the two parties -- locking our leaders to their agendas even more than their interest groups do already. Ultimately, for a representative democracy like ours, this model is inefficient.
See, the founders used the term "factions" to describe both parties and special interests. The real way to fix politics is not to get rid of money, but to eliminate the need for money. And what better way to do so than by having shorter elections?
The number one cost to campaigns today are TV ads. Yet, we all see it -- people are DVRing through TV commercials or just shifting from TV all together and watching content online. Soon (very soon, based on 2012 Nielsen statistics) we'll be the curators of our own content. And the generically messaged ads once broadly targeted by region, network, time and show are slowly being replaced by better produced, specifically messaged and micro-targeted online ads. These ads are not only more effective in messaging specific policies to their complimentary demographics, but they cost an average of 1/1000 of what television ads cost.
If campaigns are meant to be the time when candidates introduce themselves to voters, then using this logic of utilizing technology that effectively messages a candidate's campaign, a campaign may not need to start as early. Most of that initial time campaigning is actually spent fundraising -- mostly for the ads primarily purchased and run after primaries and especially post conventions during the 60 day lead up. Sure, campaign funds go to grass roots organizing and building an infrastructure (with plenty of help from parties and unions), but the bulk of a campaign budget is in ads.
Without the need to buy costly and ineffective television ads, that time can be freed for policy and governing (if you are the incumbent) and true people-to-people grass roots campaigning.
How on earth does the political industry of cable, ads, media, fundraising and campaign folk ever agree to shorter elections when their livelihoods depend on it? Just as Congress would never vote to create loophole-free campaign finance laws or an amendment to the Constitution overturning Citizens United, the profitable campaign world will not eagerly be signing up to restructure their highly profitable industry.
The change must happen naturally -- through the evolution of our political model. Through a model that shifts messaging and spending from TV to cheaper, more effective online messaging.
What does this mean for our political system? Politicians can utilize all of that free fundraising time for actual people-to-people campaigning and legislating. Special interests will not be able to influence our leaders with promises of large campaign checks, because the campaigns won't need to raise as much money. And great candidates with strong visions may rise up replacing the candidates who are in because they are the best fundraisers. It may sound idealistic, but not too long ago, this used to be the way campaigning worked. And it is the way our founders wanted us to operate -- for the people, by the people.
Until then, buy a DVR and some earplugs. The campaigning is only going to get worse.