The "Freakonomics" boys need to take a good look at political campaigns. These iconoclastic economists like to answer weird questions outside of their traditional discipline. Here is mine: Why have presidential campaigns grown so long?
The Purveyors of Inside Knowledge (PIKs) have bungled the job on this one, and there is good reason for that: They have a financial interest in long presidential campaigns.
But a good answer to this question is vital to keep the system from dissolving into utter dysfunctionality. We're on the brink of that now. Shortening presidential campaigns would be the most effective and realistic single, discrete step we take to begin repairs. It would instantly reduce (albeit marginally) the influence of money; focus energy, attention and brainpower on governing, not campaigning; attract more able candidates; diminish the power and influence of consultants and political marketers; and, last but not least, repulse sensible voters slightly less than the current marathon of mediocrity.
U.S. presidential campaigns not only are longer than they used to be, they are much, much longer than in any other industrialized democracy. The average length of a campaign in Britain was 21.8 days between 1960 and 1990, according to one study. The Australians got it done in 27 days, the Danes in 28, the Canadians in 61 and the Italians in 60. Germany had the longest campaigns — 114 days. They haven't grown appreciably longer since 1990. Admittedly, parliamentary systems do indeed operate differently than ours. But there is nothing in the Constitution that mandates endless campaigns and primaries.
In America in 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his campaign on January 2. He was elected on November 8, an eternity by European standards a sprint by contemporary American measures. After party reforms in 1969 and 1972, the slippery slope got more slippery, but not quite insane. Bill Clinton declared on Oct. 3, 1991, just more than a year before he won. George W. Bush launched himself on June 12, 1999. John Kerry waited until Sept. 16, 2003 to declare.
This year, in January — 20 months before the 2008 election — there are very few politicians who can cut their own meat at dinner who have not officially announced their intentions to be the next president of the United States. This is absolutely going to be the longest election in American history. It already is. This is my seventh "January before election year" in Washington (please don't spread that around) and, on the frenzy-o-meter, it compares to no other I've seen. I'm not saying that any of the spinning and dancing going on now will make the slightest difference in what happens in November 2008. But it's happening full throttle.
PIKs explain the early start with three postulates. Campaigns must begin earlier because the 2008 primary season is more front-loaded than ever: There will be January primaries or caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Four big states are likely to move their primaries to early February — California, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida. So a viable candidate, PIKs say, must start getting organized nationally right now, though yesterday would have been much better.
Second, Organizing takes money. And because of the front-loading, a viable candidate has to start spending on TV in October or November. And since all the big candidates will give up government matching funds so they won't have any limits of their spending, all viable candidates will follow course. And if you don't sign up the biggest fundraisers right now, they'll all be gone before Valentine's Day. The logic is inexorable; the brinksmanship is inevitable.
The third and less compelling pronouncement of the PIKs is that this campaign is hot so early because Bush is so weak. Like hyenas, pols smell blood — and they are circling the carcass of the Bush presidency.
Sounds good, makes sense — but it's hogwash. Just because Iowa is a tad earlier than usually, the whole campaign doesn't have to move back six months. And fundraisers can raise funds in whatever time period is necessary. They've done it in every past election.
The reason the 2008 campaign has already started is money in the profit sense, not money in the fundraising sense.
But if you're looking for a job and you happen to be an operative in Iowa, a policy wonk in Washington, a campaign finance attorney or a fundraiser in New Hampshire, you want the campaigns to start as early as possible. That's where the steady work is.
If you're a pollster or an ad maker or a media buyer or a direct mail specialist, the earlier the campaign launches, the earlier the consulting fees come in. If you're a political reporter, the earlier the campaign starts the more fun you have and the more your bosses can't assign you to boring stories about Congress and agencies.
If you live in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states, long campaigns equal big cash registers. If you have a television station in one of those states, it's a ka-ching primary.
Even certain candidates have a vested financial interest. Pat Buchanan has made a great living being a failed candidate. Alan Keyes has done all right. If you're a Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson or a Sam Brownback, getting in early, hanging in for a while, getting in debates with the big boys and creating some national name ID can be a decent investment.
There are all sorts of easy political reforms that could shorten the campaigns. They've been kicked around for ages, and no one thinks they'll ever come to pass. So maybe it is time to get sneaky and change the incentive system for those who profit from our long quadrennial nightmare.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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