With the 2008 Presidential race gathering steam more than a year before the general election actually takes place, primaries have crept earlier than ever before. In fact, with
In my opinion, this would be a negative development, and could have a number of implications for our democracy as a whole. Perhaps most immediately, we are likely to see a good deal of fatigue (and, some would argue, disenchantment) with an electoral process that is so drawn out. Voters may tire of constant campaign ads and news reports about candidates on the stump, and as a result they may simply tune it out. Thus, civic engagement and perceptions of voter efficacy may suffer. Election Day turnout will almost inevitably fall as a result.
Additionally, a longer election cycle means that more money needs to be pumped into each and every political campaign. The field is crowded this time around, and with no end to the rat race in sight, it's likely that the fund-raising abilities of top candidates and the wealth of some special interests will be magnified in their importance as time drags on. While the argument that campaign donations constitute free speech holds water with me right now, the longer and more expensive the road to the White House becomes, the more I'll be inclined to believe that the highest office in this country is merely sold to the one with the richest friends. It's a fine line between protected speech and buying influence, and a slippery slope to try to draw this line through legislation. In a pamphlet I was given by the
One obvious advantage of the new, lengthier electoral process is the fact that, after more than a year of hard campaigning on the part of each candidate, the American people will have seen their future leader tempered by the heat of prolonged battle long before he or she assumes the Oval Office. But at what cost (literal and figurative)? Where does it end - if this front-loading of elections continues, will Iowa and New Hampshire eventually hold primaries for the next election in the weeks after each new president's inauguration?
Perhaps I'm getting a bit carried away with hyperbole, but the fact is that ludicrously drawn-out election cycles have the potential to harm civic engagement, voter turnout, and the state of our democracy as a whole (at least on some level). In order to combat this phenomenon and mitigate the negative effects of long campaigns, we can implement a number of measures designed to reign in these runaway contests.
For starters, it may be possible to stop primaries from creeping ever earlier by passing a federal law that sets a date before which no states may vote. This would at least prevent election season from growing longer every four years, and eventually it could lead to a de facto national primary (states crowding together to hold elections on the first date allowed by law). While campaigning would certainly be a free-for-all (as it should be) before and after such a date, placing reasonable limits on the length of election season might make a positive difference.
Another solution, though much more controversial, would be to limit spending for presidential campaigns. Public funding has proven to be more or less impractical and McCain-Feingold has had limited effect, but capping the amount of money that candidates can raise/spend could help to level the playing field and confine campaign contributions more firmly to the arena of free speech (rather than purchasing influence). By setting reasonable limits ($50 million, say), campaigns could rely on donations from individuals rather than PACs and lobbyists. The Constitutional implications of such a measure would have to be exhaustively explored, of course, as any such legislation could leave the door open to abridgment of First Amendment rights (which should be avoided entirely).
I would like to emphasize the firm conviction that any proposals similar to the ones I describe above should be implemented only with extreme care and the utmost caution, as failure to do so could have disastrous implications for free speech and expression in a broad sense. It may be that these proposals violate the First Amendment even as I describe them (in some way I have not yet foreseen), in which case I would strongly oppose them. By proffering these ideas in this blog entry, I merely hope to engage in productive dialogue about our rapidly accelerating election cycle, not to advance any agenda or solve specific problems.
It is also possible, of course, that this year’s exhaustive election will tire the voting public to such an extent that the 2012 election will naturally be curtailed. It is also possible that people will react well to the longer cycle, that fatigue and disengagement will not happen as I fear they might, and that negative effects will not be felt. At the very least, however, the question should remain an open one, and the impact of front-loaded primaries should be carefully measured. It is through such dialogue (and such vigilance) that democratic institutions and processes are preserved.
On another note entirely, this will be my final blog post as an intern at the