The 2012 presidential campaign was a series of gruesome sideshows that lasted two years and made everyone unhappy. Americans thought the campaign had gone on too long and wanted it to end… in 2011, even before any Republican primaries had been held. Horse race–style stories documenting the minutiae of day-to-day campaigning and polls and microscandals out filled cable news and every political corner of the internet and were obsolete by the time The Daily Show got around to making fun of them. None of it mattered. Mitt Romney was the frontrunner in early 2011 and he won the nomination only to lose fairly badly to Barack Obama—an outcome you could have predicted without reading or watching any of the thousands of news items that accompanied the campaign.
Then it was over, and we were treated to some months of relative peace and quiet. Congress was busy finding new ways to not do anything. The 2014 midterms were coming up if you were really an election junkie. There was some speculation about who was going to run for president—definitely Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Chris Christie; probably Joe Biden, Jeb Bush, and Bobby Jindal—and no doubt there was a bunch of behind-the-scenes fundraising and conversations between political professionals going on, but it was out of the public eye, because c’mon, who would start campaigning for real more than three years before an election?
Hillary Clinton, for one. There are already pro-Hillary Super PACs roaming the Earth, including Ready for Hillary, which recently hired some of Obama’s best organizers, even though Hillary hasn’t even officially declared her candidacy. But maybe Ready for Hillary is just her supporters' response to anti-Clinton efforts already underway—American Crossroads, the Super PAC founded by Republican strategist and bad person Karl Rove, has already cut an anti-Hillary ad that criticizes her for lying about whether the 2012 attack on the Libyan embassy in Benghazi was an act of terrorism:
Hillary is getting beat up on because she’s the presumptive frontrunner for the Democrats (the Republican field is going to be more wide open), but she’s not the only target out there. America Rising, the Super PAC that runs StopHillary2016.org, also operates a Tumblr that takes shots at every Democrat who might run in 2016, including Biden and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.
Democrats are also in full pre-campaign campaign mode. They just created Correct the Record, a “dedicated research and rapid response communications project to prevent Republicans from denigrating potential Democratic candidates with baseless attacks.” I can’t wait for the microscopic arguments over the truthiness of campaign ads that will spill over from blogs to Facebook and Twitter and probably result in some hi-larious memes like 2012's “binders full of women.” It’s gonna be a fun three years, y’all.
Electioneering season has been getting longer and longer since 1840, which is considered to be the dawn of the modern campaign (back then, the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” was a brilliant piece of advertising strategy). In 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president ten months before the general election, but by 2008 candidates were declaring their intentions almost two years in advance. State primaries have been getting scheduled earlier and earlier in the year, a trend you can see evolve from 1976 to 2012 (though in recent years both major parties have cracked down on states moving up their primary dates), and intra-party debates have been creeping up the calendar too—the first presidential debate for the 2000 election cycle was held on October 22, 1999, just a few months before the first GOP primary, but by the 2012 cycle the first debate had been moved back three months, to May. The first informal straw poll for 2012 I could find evidence of was in August of 2010, a mere two years before the general election. There have already been at least two for the 2016 race, one at CPAC and one at the Roanoke Conference, a less publicized GOP gathering in Washington state.
A political cartoon from 1840, when things were simpler.
In 2011 the New York Times’ election blog published a defense of long campaigns. “Nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation,” wrote historian Gil Troy. He argued that these campaigns let voters get to know the candidates and how they respond to pressure: “Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.”
Except the voters—who these campaigns are supposedly for—fucking hate these things. “Too negative, too long, dull,” was how the Pew Research Center summarized the public’s opinion of the 2012 campaign.
Long campaigns don’t just irritate voters, they introduce more money into elections and, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out last go-round, they can result in ideological differences being erased in the name of electorate-ready talking points. If you’ve never seen a presidential primary in action you might think that they’d give voters a chance to pick between a variety of positions, each represented by a candidate. The reality of 2012 was much uglier than that—the Republican candidates competed to be more Christian, more anti-tax, and less believing in climate change to try to capture the support of the right wing of the right wing of the GOP. On top of everything else, the length of campaigns wears candidates down. “Is this a marathon or what?” Senator Howard Baker once said while running for president. “I’ve been campaigning for president for 53 weeks… That’s time enough, isn’t it?” He said that in 1980. Today, campaigning for that long would get you just about to the first primary.
Why do campaigns have to be like this? In parliamentary democracies, where elections generally occur when governments call them and don’t have dates fixed years in advance, the whole process happens much quicker—campaigns are over in weeks or months, not years. But we’re not going to switch over to a British model of government, and passing laws that tell candidates when they can give speeches or spend money will likely be impossible thanks to the First Amendment. If candidates can get an early edge by organizing or fundraising—or putting out negative ads—they’ll take it. If a voter sees an anti-Hillary ad in 2013, he might think, Oh no not this shit again, we just had an election! But he also might start thinking, Hillary Clinton something something Benghazi, hmmmm… sounds bad!
Then there are the people who actually seem to enjoy campaigns—either because they make a living from working on them, or just because they’re exciting. Congress moves slowly or not at all, most of what the executive branch does happens in secret, and the Supreme Court, though powerful, doesn’t respond to political cues in the ordinary sense. A campaign constantly generates news, there are winners and losers at the end of it, and there’s no end to the speculating you can do. If you get into the spirit of the horse race and just let the sickness take over your body, watching the slow-motion nightmare of modern campaigns can be sort of fun.
I remember coming home on the last election night, glancing at Twitter, at finding this tweet from conservative Daily Caller writer Matt K. Lewis:
Who do you like for 2016 (as of right this minute)? Rubio, Ryan, Jindal, Christie, Pence, Martinez, Haley, Santo, Huck, Haley, Paul…?
— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) November 7, 2012
Yup. For some, the 2016 campaign started at midnight, November 7, 2012—1,462 days before election night. Just 1,216 days to go.
More on the American political system: