Why Presidential Campaigns Don't Work

Americans have short attention spans these days. Their preferred communication is abbreviated text-bites, epic novels have been replaced by Kindle $2.99 30K-word specials, and the highest rated TV shows are procedurals with one-episode storylines. Newspapers with in-depth reporting have been usurped by Internet rags that keep it short and sweet; the most popular delivery system for breaking news is the 140-character tweet, and long form letters (remember those??) are most closely replicated by emails containing more than one paragraph. Even the more personal stuff -- marriages and career jobs -- tend to come in smaller, more cyclical, doses; several five-year stints vs. "till death do us part" or "here's your 40-year gold watch" kind of commitment.

So what makes anyone think a TEN-MONTH presidential campaign is ever going to hold the interest of the average American?

Yes, Mitt Romney wasn't given the official nod until June but we've been knee-deep in this since, at the very least, the beginning of the year. Ten months is too long for anything that demands attention and it's certainly too long for a presidential campaign in 21st century America.

There was a recent blog about the campaign in the Huffington Post written by Trey Ellis that opened with, "The malaise is palpable on both sides." He went on to describe the current doldrums:

The cure to what ails the electorate is not more policy but policy across an array of urgent middle-class issues all in the service of creating and enforcing an irresistibly infectious and uplifting narrative. Facts don't excite voters, stories do. If one could teach us to dream again, we'll follow them anywhere.

I beg to differ, Mr. Ellis. It ain't stories we need. Uplifting and infectious narrative are nice in a movie but, frankly, we don't need to be taught to dream again. We know how to dream. We're just bored silly with this interminable, ridiculous, nasty and repetitive campaign!

It's been said that the demands of the 24/7 news cycle cause cable and online media to run out of real news quickly enough that, to fill space, they rely on hours of "infotainment" and fluff disguised as news; content that doesn't even rise to the level of interesting much of the time. We're treated to endless reality shows in lieu of creative programming, we've made stars of talentless people whose exhibitionism is traded for ratings and any kernel of actual news is beaten to such a bloody pulp by every network and pundit along the way that viewers can only roll their eyes at the screaming and hyperbole.

How that translates during a presidential campaign is not hard to guess. With so many media outlets and so many months to fill, we, the People, are regaled with:

1. What Obama did today/yesterday/a minute ago that was heinous/wonderful
2. Why Romney will save the country/doom us
3. Anything related to Trump and birth certificates
4. Ann Romney's ability to relate/not relate
5. Why Michelle Obama is horrible for telling kids what to eat/an inspiration to us all
6. What Sarah Palin thinks about anything/if she actually thinks
7. Why Bristol Palin has her own reality show
8. Why Bill Kristol said what about whom on what show
9. Who did what and when to the economy and why we can/can't blame them
10. Preaching to whichever choir is singing at a given moment
11. Polls about (fill in the blank)
12. Polls about why poll results regarding (fill in the blank) are so varied
13. Polls about how polls are translated
14. Polls about pollsters and who's polling what

You get the point.

I'm convinced we could have this election today and the results would be, within a statistical margin of error, identical to what they'll be in November. Is there really anybody who doesn't already know who they'll vote for? I don't buy the whole swing voter/fence sitter theory; I've always suspected these are people who simply enjoy the attention they get by pretending they don't have an opinion "yet." PLEASE.

If you can't decide between candidates as clearly and unequivocally disparate as Obama and Romney by now, odds are you shouldn't be voting. This is not rocket science. Which party represents your world view? Which policies and social doctrines espoused by which candidate most closely align with your own? Still a bit hazy? How about you turn off the cable news shows, close your eyes, and just think about what you believe and who best represents those beliefs? Then vote according to your conscience.

Having a campaign this long and laborious does nothing to further the cause; it's simply time-filler. If I'm to be really cynical, I might even suggest it's a ratings ploy, an opportunity to give pundits and cable networks longer to spout incendiary, buzz-worthy sound bites to drive ratings. More fodder for newspapers, magazines and online sites to publish and promote. Extra time for advertisers to sell. More billable hours for lobbyists to bill. It's a veritable industry, campaigning and, after a point, has little to do with actually educating people.

Because on the other side of those with attention span deficits are the smart, focused people who don't need to be beaten over the head with months of repetitive messaging. Who aren't impressed with or swayed by the pulse-taking, Band-Aid lifting, pot-watching compulsion of pollsters. Who are annoyed with the picayune gossip, transparent story spinning, and outright propaganda that pass for news. There's a growing campaign fatigue that translates into boredom, which results in the decision to "switch it all off until I get to the ballot box," as one friend put it. Hopefully they will get to the ballot box... because we've got over three more months of this!

We don't need patronizing and forced inspiration. We just need to get on with it. Presidential campaigns should be like any long-form narrative. Good ones come with exquisite pace and timing, sensible and appealing story arcs, compelling characters, and a clear sense of when to end. If they miss the boat, they risk losing the attention, and partnership, of their intended audience. In this scenario, putting an audience to sleep loses the election... and that's not an ending worthy of all the time invested.