Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Election '07?

By Riley Roberts

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 South Carolina vying for a place in the sun by grabbing an earlier spot, it's possible that the first votes of Election 2008 will be cast before the end of 2007. In response to South Carolina’s audacious move, Iowa and New Hampshire, long accustomed to hosting the nation’s first contests and bound by state law to do so, may start the fireworks as early as December.

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 University of Illinois before I studied abroad in England, one political scientist noted that elections in the US, compared with their British counterparts, take "dramatically longer and are much more expensive." If current trends continue, this will be especially true of the '08 race.

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 McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. I have enjoyed contributing to this blog, and I am grateful to have had the singular opportunity to serve as the Museum's first intern. From my point of view, it has been an extremely productive learning experience, and I look forward to hearing about the successes of future interns in this worthwhile program. I would like to thank all of my co-workers in the Foundation and especially at the Museum for a wonderful (and educational) work environment, and I am particularly grateful to Dave Anderson, Shawn Healy, and Danielle Estler for keeping me on my toes with a dynamic and challenging internship experience. I have learned a lot, and I count myself as extremely fortunate to have worked for such a great institution (for any readers of the right age and background, I would encourage you to apply for this position).


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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