The More Things Change: The Long, Drawn-Out Campaign

June 6, 2000

Editor’s Note: Mr. Hess has been around so long—he first came to Washington to work for Eisenhower!—that there doesn’t seem much new in Washington news. When we asked for proof, he pointed to his old columns from twenty years ago. Dig in there, he suggested, and you’ll agree. We did. We do.

From time to time we plan to republish Mr. Hess’s old columns as a reminder of the historian’s creed: “the more things change ….”

This column first ran on May 13, 1979. It seems as fresh as the day he wrote it.

“We’re wearing people out with politics,” says Nancy Reagan, who has learned a great deal about running for president in the past decade. “We’ll wear the public out, wear the committees out, wear the candidates out, and wear out the press.”

Mrs. Reagan’s husband Ronald, of course, is one of ten announced or unannounced contenders for a Republican presidential nomination that will not be awarded until July 1980, and the nominee will still have to keep talking until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of next year.

She raises an interesting and important question: how long is too long?

It is debatable whether presidential campaigns are actually getting longer. Andrew Jackson was “nominated” for President by the Tennessee legislature three years before the 1828 election. Back on July 5, 1927, H.L. Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun, “The chief danger confronting the Al Smith boom lies in the fact that it started too soon.” (Smith won the 1928 Democratic nomination.) And Jim Farley spent two years before the 1932 convention rounding up delegates for Franklin Roosevelt.

But if Mrs. Reagan doesn’t quite have history on her side, she clearly is on the side of the public’s perception. Presidential campaigns seem longer.

They seem longer because the proliferation of state primaries have made them so much more visible. When delegates were recruited privately, as in Jim Farley’s day, the campaign did not have to intrude into our lives. And campaigns seem longer because television more quickly sates our appetite for politics, while, at the same time, lowering our boredom threshold. We have grown used to stories being resolved in thirty minutes between commercials. The network evening news presents a two-year saga of who’s ahead and who’s behind. What a drag.

In a free country anyone eligible to be president can announce his or her desire whenever the spirit moves, so it seems rather unlikely that a way could be devised to shorten campaigns. Perhaps this is merely one of those things that we love to complain about. Yet is it really a good idea to shorten the campaign if we could?

There is the possibility that the long campaign could have an adverse effect on the health of the candidates, one of whom will be elected President. 0n the other hand, it could be contended that physical stamina is an important presidential attribute and therefore should be tested by the campaign. Running for office, after all, is not an obligatory activity in our society. And since no candidates in the past have been incapacitated by the campaigns—other than by assassins—while jet planes, limousines, and luxury hotels make campaigning as painless as possible, this point is mainly of importance to collegiate debaters.

The key argument against the long campaign is that it bores the electorate and thus lowers the voter turnout. If a high voter turnout is good then a long campaign is bad. Again, the facts don’t support the proposition. The lowest turnout of the modern presidential era came in 1948 when there was an exciting and unpredictable four-way race. There is simply no evidence that correlates low turnout and long campaign.

What political scientists do know is that people who are the least informed politically are also the least educated and the poorest. These are the ones who need the most time to tune into politics and absorb the positions and personalities of the candidates. It is the “best informed”—the type of people who read the editorial pages—who tune in first, become bored, and write letters to the editor about the need to shorten the campaign.

Moreover, from the perspective of the candidates, a long campaign is a great equalizer. The incumbent President or the opposition frontrunner doesn’t need the extra time to get better known. The long campaign is one way to open the process to the little-known governors, or members of the House of Representatives, or others whose names aren’t yet household words.

Then, too, a short campaign would be easier to manipulate. Candidates would travel less and rely on television advertising more. Thus it would be more difficult to separate the “real” candidates from the creations of their ghost-writers and public relations specialists. Painful as it may be to the candidates and their wives, the long campaign gives us a prolonged opportunity to figure out makes them tick. It was in this way, for example, that we ruled out George Romney and Edmund Muskie.

The present system may be tedious to observers, and an ordeal to participants, but it makes considerable sense if our major concern is learning as much as possible about the person who may be our next President.

“Success in a lottery is no excuse for lotteries,” Bagehot once said. The long campaign is certainly no guarantee that our presidents will be wise and able; a short campaign, however, would be much more of a lottery.