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This Is What Long Election Cycles Do to Your Mind

What your political burnout means, and what you can do about it.

by Shayla Love
Feb 4 2020, 1:00pm

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We're approaching the one-year anniversary of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sander's official announcements of running for president—February 9 and 19, 2019, respectively. In the past 12 months, we've gone from more than 25 Democratic candidates to 11, and there have already been seven debates—yet somehow we still have a long way to go. There are five months until the Democratic convention where the party's nominee will be announced, and nine months until the general election. There are still five more debates, with three scheduled in February alone.

Among some Democratic voters, a feeling of worn-out stupor has set in. "I am exhausted by election coverage," said Lia, a 29-year-old in New York City. "Exhausted, stressed out, anxious, scared."

If you feel like campaigns have been getting longer, and longer—you'd be right. Prior to the 1960s, the amount of campaigning that took place before Labor Day of an election year was limited. But in the past 40 years, the emphasis on each party's primaries has increased, leading candidates to announce their bids earlier and earlier—creating a kind of mini-election before the election.

Because of the lengthening campaigns, spending on political ads and campaign travel, candidates need to start fundraising earlier—creating a feedback loop that makes campaigns stretch out even more.

Some studies suggest that longer campaigns lead to a more informed voter-base—especially during the primaries when people aren't voting along party lines, but within them. But there are clearly corresponding feelings of stress, burn out, and fatigue. Is there a tipping point where gaining more information turns into giving up altogether? How might longer campaigns affect political engagement, and even voting behavior?

Our fatigue is important to acknowledge—not necessarily to make an argument for laws limiting campaign length—but to examine the kinds of news coverage we interact with and our methods of political engagement. And, just like any other kind of burnout, mental health consequences of a long campaign could indicate that it's time to take a step back, and recognize that it's not unpatriotic to take a break.

Why are we all so, so tired?

During Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, Kristie, a 27-year-old from Texas, volunteered her time by phone banking and didn't miss a single debate. Not so anymore.

“The theatrics and utter ridiculousness of it all has been exhausting and defeating," she said. "Social media has only made things worse; I can’t scroll through my Twitter feed without 50 percent of it being about the election. I have completely tuned out of it all and will not be paying attention until a few weeks before the primaries.” (The Texas primary is March 3.) Kristie is far from alone: According to a survey by Pew, 60 percent of Americans said they were exhausted by election coverage in 2016.

Vin Arceneaux, a professor of political science at Temple University, said that we’re in uncharted water when asking how long campaigns will affect people's political involvement, because previous studies looking at campaign length and behavior studied election cycles that were much shorter than what we have today—the cut-off for a longer campaign could be defined as anything above six weeks, an amount of time that feels utopian, compared to current campaign lengths.

What we do know: “They are telling us they feel tired,” Arceneaux said. “They feel less interested in following along with what’s going on. And we know that, outside of politics, people have a certain emotional reserve to deal with things. After a while, you just run out of emotional wherewithal to respond.”


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TC Harris, a 25-year-old from Ohio, has found that the longer the Democratic primary goes on, it becomes clear that many candidates aren’t focusing on issues that are important to her. Harris is disabled, and said the lack of disability discussion on the debate stage is one of the main reasons for her burnout.

“A shorter campaign would allow for at least the illusion there may not have been time to address these 'special interest' issues,” she said. “Such a long campaign and still so little discourse surely underlines, highlights, and screams at us, 'it just doesn't matter, we don't matter, we are simply a topic which is never a priority.'”

The campaign can feel never-ending because, with the influx of news, debates, and candidate squabbles, our minds can't get any closure. Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland, said that long campaigns bring about “cognitive openness,” or in other words, indecisiveness. We make decisions once we have a need for "cognitive closure"—when we say to ourselves, “Enough is enough, I have all the information I need, and it’s time for me to make up my mind," he said. As a campaign stretches on, it takes longer to reach that point, because we're constantly being fed new information.

This is compounded by the fact that, for many, the campaign feels longer than last time: Kristie and others mentioned that their feelings of burnout are so intense because it's as if the 2016 election never ended.

“My feelings of defeat stem from Trump being elected three years ago,” Kristie said. “It just kind of feels like this whole thing doesn’t matter if someone like him can be elected. Me watching every debate and being overly involved in campaigns doesn’t guarantee anything.”

It can feel incredibly overwhelming: “I feel anxious like I'm standing on the precipice at the end of the world, basically,” Lia said. “I have an anxiety disorder as it is and thinking about another four years of health care not getting fixed and the environment continuing to burn and sink exacerbates it immensely.”

A long campaign season isn’t necessarily bad for democracy

Is the answer to shorten political campaigns, forcibly, through law? Many other countries have limits on how long the campaign window can be: in Japan, there are only 17 days allowed for campaigning for the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of its national legislature. In Argentina, candidates can only start running ads 60 days before the election. In the same time span as the 2016 election, Emma Roller pointed out in The New York Times that “we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections.”

But that might not be the best move. People need more time in primaries to make up their minds, since they're picking between individuals, and not voting for an entire party, a study from 2015 found. “People’s preferences crystallize, and it takes time for them to crystallize when they’re focused on particular candidates by comparison with parties,” political scientist Christopher Wlezien told The Atlantic in 2016. If the campaigns were shorter, it “may just end up forcing voters to be more reliant upon parties and less open to new voices."

Lynn Vavreck, a professor at University of California Los Angeles in political science, who studies campaigns and elections, co-authored a study from 2000 that looked at different campaign lengths in different countries. She found that, the longer the campaign, the more informed voters were about the economic conditions in their countries—and more likely to vote in accordance with that information.

“We saw that as a pretty good thing for democracy, that with longer campaigns, people are learning more about the objective conditions of the country around them that might affect them," she said.

When Vavreck hears about people being exhausted, “To be honest with you, it kind of makes me roll my eyes," she said. She offered a not-so-subtle wake up call: "They've done this to themselves. There are lots of people out there who don't even know who's running. We're not going to shorten the length of the presidential campaign because people are tired of it."

Try curating which parts you pay attention to—and getting involved

For the die-hard supporters who aren't going to stop following the election, there are other ways to try and address the burnout, aside from shortening campaign length. It might be that the quality of election information you interact with is causing despair, more so than the quantity.

In the 2016 election, Pew found that around 40 percent of registered voters felt there was too much coverage of candidates’ comments on the campaign trail and of their personal lives, and too little coverage of their stance on issues.

Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who studies voting behavior, campaigns, and political psychology, said people should consider how much information, and what kind, they need about each candidate to make a voting decision, and once you reach that threshold, take a step back.

That's what David Arena, a 59-year-old in Connecticut did—he used to watch the debates, but doesn’t anymore. "This election cycle seems to be debate after debate and it's down to sound bites and 'someone looked real tough,'" he said. "It all looks like a campaign commercial to me now.” Instead, he reads about candidates' policy positions and watches one-on-one interviews.

If you're having a hard time extracting yourself from excessive news coverage, even when it makes you miserable, it could be time to take a closer look at why you engage with politics. In Eitan Hersh's new book, Politics Is for Power, he wrote that by reading the news and debating on Twitter or Facebook, many are actually just consuming “political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs.”

“They are scrolling through their news feeds, keeping up on all the dramatic turns in Washington that satiate their need for an emotional connection to politics but that help them not at all learn how to be good citizens,” Hersh wrote in The Atlantic. He argues that this approach turns people into “political hobbyists," and “what they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”

Of course, people can also be emotional about politics because they associate their well-being, beliefs, and futures with the outcome of an election. But while drowning oneself in the 24-hour news cycle almost definitely contributes to burnout, Hersh said it's not likely making a big difference in your community.

He explained it partly as a result of privilege: In a survey he conducted in 2018, he found that white people spent more hours and minutes “reading, talking, and thinking” about politics compared to black people and Latinos. But black people and Latinos were twice as likely to have used their time to volunteer in their communities, and were more likely to read and watch local news, compared to national. Hobbyists should try to "find local organizations in which they can serve," Hersh wrote.

Arceneaux agreed that if a person who is feeling exhausted tried being politically active in a more social way, it could help with burn out—and that doesn’t mean social media. “I mean real honest-to-god showing up, helping out, and building grassroots efforts," Arceneaux said.

Or just have some faith that most of us will feel ready to participate when it matters

If the notion of detaching from the day-to-day campaign news still makes you nervous, Kruglanski said to take refuge in the fact that ultimately, it’s the last phase of the campaign that’s critical—that’s when most undecided people actually make up their mind. In psychology, this is called the recency effect, where people only focus on and remember the most recent piece of information they've gotten. He thinks it’s most important to mobilize at the end of any campaign, so take some time off now if you need it.

And while people might still be feeling burned out by the end of the summer, months before the general election, Arceneaux said we should also remember another important psychological force that will likely emerge: uniting over a common enemy. “Republicans are going to have their convention,” he said. “There are going to be debates between Trump and the Democratic nominee. All the people who are interested in politics are going to be reinvigorated.”

He guesses that by the time October comes around, what's taking place now will largely be forgotten, “and [Democrats] are going to do what they always do, which is enthusiastically show up to the polls and vote for the party’s candidate.”

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Tagged:
Politics
mental health
Donald Trump
Campaign
2020
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