What If We Didn’t...?” is part of a new series from Mic — read more here.
Abigael Evans pouted into the camera her mother, Elizabeth Evans, trained on her. With tears streaming down her reddened face, the 4-year-old succinctly summed up how many Americans likely felt on Oct. 30, 2012, eight days before that year’s presidential election: “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!”
Abigael’s comment about the endless media coverage of then-President Barack Obama (aka “Bronco Bamma”) and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney quickly went viral online.
Little Abigael’s critique feels even more valid in 2018. Doesn’t it increasingly feel like election season never ends? As soon as one cycle wraps up, another begins, leaving Americans exhausted by a constant barrage of rancorous, mean-spirited ads from politicians and outside interest groups.
Candidates, party committees and outside groups spent a monstrous $6.4 billion on the 2016 presidential election, up from roughly $6.3 billion during the 2012 election, according to data from Open Secrets.
It was in January 2013 — nearly four years before the 2016 election — that the super PAC Ready for Hillary was launched in advance of Hillary Clinton’s second presidential run. Donald Trump had been floating the idea of running for years, clawing at the political spotlight by pushing an already debunked racist conspiracy theory against Obama. Following his now-famous escalator ride, Trump launched his bid in June 2015. We know the rest.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election was over, the campaign for 2020 seemed to start, with Maryland state Rep. John Delaney (a Democrat) announcing a bid for the presidency in June. Trump himself held his first 2020 campaign rally in February — less than a month after his inauguration — and has continued to hold such events, in part to bask in the adoration of friendly crowds to distract from his historically low approval ratings.
Of course, the 2018 midterm elections also kicked off right away as a surge of anti-Trump energy propelled Democratic candidates to sign up in droves to run for office. Meanwhile, special elections have made it feel like there’s a new race every week.
Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who chose not to run for re-election in 2016, citing incessant fundraising demands, said constant campaigning is taking a toll.
“This permanent campaign environment is hurting the institution of democracy and people’s faith in democracy,” Israel said in an interview with Mic.
But what if we lived in a country where this wasn’t the norm, where we didn’t have never-ending political campaigns and instead limited the time frame in which candidates could bombard you with television ads, mailers, home visits and robocalls? It may sound like a wild idea, but a number of countries have done just that. Could such a policy work in the United States?
How did we end up with the permanent campaign?
Political campaigns in the U.S. did, in fact, used to be shorter.
“If you go back a few decades, the campaigns realistically — especially congressional campaigns — were roughly six months out of every two years,” political scientist Norm Ornstein, author of The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, said in an interview with Mic. “Members would focus more on governing during those times, and the political consultants who worked with them for those six months, when the elections were over, they’d go out and do other stuff.”
Over time, changes in the nomination process and campaign finance laws have helped prolong the duration of campaigns. For example, early nominating conventions were controlled by party insiders, who appointed delegates expected to vote for candidates “in line with the wishes of party bosses,” according to Reuters. Primaries only began in the early 20th century, beginning with Florida in 1901 and becoming more widespread after the Democrats’ tumultuous 1968 convention.
Since then, states began holding earlier primaries in an attempt to gain more influence in the nominating process. Then came the 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which held that political spending is a form of free speech that could not be limited under the First Amendment. The ruling gave corporations, labor unions and other associations the ability to make unlimited contributions to super PACs.
Unlike regular PACs, which are limited in how much money they can accept and spend per candidate, super PACs can receive unlimited contributions and spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections. However, super PACs are prohibited from directly donating to or coordinating with candidates or party organizations, a restriction that doesn’t apply to regular PACs. They’re also required to disclose their donors to the FEC.
Super PACs run the ideological gamut, from the network of PACs funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers to Democratic PACs like the one run by left-leaning billionaire Tom Steyer. Because they can accept unlimited contributions, they have the ability to spend more money on ads from fewer donors.
The Citizens United decision also paved the way for the creation of “social welfare” groups, which can collect unlimited funds without having to report their donors. Those groups are forbidden to run issue ads that explicitly instruct viewers to vote for or against a candidate, but they can (and usually do) run ads criticizing politicians for their voting records that straddle the line of what’s legally allowed.
For example, Americans for Prosperity, a social welfare group tied to the Koch brothers, has been running attack ads against Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018. The ads target candidates who voted against the GOP tax bill, but never recommend that voters kick those candidates out of office. Instead, the ads instruct them to call these members to voice their disapproval.
This massive influx of cash into politics has forced politicians to raise even more money to counter the attacks against them, resulting in the constant campaign cycle we see today.
Super PAC ads aimed at senators running for re-election in 2018 began more than a year in advance of Election Day. For example, Democratic super PAC Priorities USA started airing attack ads against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in August. Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, began running its own attack ads even earlier.
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who was first elected to Congress in 2014 — in what was then one of the most expensive House races in history, according to the Washington Post — has railed against what he describes as the corrosive nature of money in politics.
“Without a doubt, Citizens United has contributed to it,” Jolly said in an interview about the now-permanent campaign cycle. “I was in a 50-50 district, and I had five elections in three years when you count the primaries. Every day you’re consumed by your re-election, and unfortunately in our system, that means you’re consumed by fundraising. That is the key to re-election.”
The permanent campaign could even be impacting the makeup of Congress. Israel decided to retire rather than constantly raise money to run again, only to be part of a gridlocked Congress that struggles to pass legislation.
“I never had a problem grinding it out in my campaigns,” Israel said. “I would shake any hand I could and go to any pizza place I could and stand in front of any train station I could. That didn’t bother me, because it was in the pursuit of getting things done. But now you’re in a permanent campaign, and you go to Congress and you get nothing done. That’s what’s motivating so many retirements.”
Surveys show that getting money out of politics — which could help shorten campaigns and lessen the overwhelming number of negative ads Americans see — is a popular idea. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published in October found that 65% of voters blame “money in politics” for the dysfunctional state of the U.S. political system.
Designated campaign periods
What’s now considered normal in U.S. elections isn’t really seen anywhere else in the world. In other countries, political campaigns are much shorter and campaigning is often restricted to specific, narrow time frames — some of them just a few weeks in length.
In 2007, Mexico shortened the presidential campaign season from 186 days to 90 days in an effort to “level the electoral playing field,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
Israeli law specifies that the country’s “election period” doesn’t begin until 101 days before an election. Political candidates in the U.K. have 38 days to “appeal to voters” prior to a general election; campaigns in Australia are roughly six weeks in duration.
These campaign periods are far shorter than the years-long sagas American elections have become.
Ornstein said these countries’ parliamentary systems — in which elections can be called in a snap and voters select the party they prefer versus a particular candidate — make it easier to limit campaign times.
In pursuing a stronger majority in Parliament to help her negotiate Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap general election April 18, 2017. The vote took place June 8, just 51 days later.
“In a parliamentary system, it’s going to be easier to restrict the length of election campaigns, in part because you don’t have a fixed election,” Ornstein said.
In the U.S., general elections fall on first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (generally the second Tuesday) every year.
Imagine this: the great American five-week campaign
The U.S. elects people, rather than parties. But let’s imagine a limited campaign system translating to the U.S.
A shorter primary period would likely benefit politicians and other public figures who are already well-known to the public — your Clintons and Trumps, for example — as a constrained primary cycle would give candidates less time to introduce themselves and their platforms to voters.
Once a primary is over, a condensed five-week campaign would lead to a mind-boggling, and likely exhausting, amount of news being lobbed at the public.
Imagine the years-long affair of the 2016 election cycle condensed to just five weeks. The constant drip-drip-drip of Clinton’s email scandal, her “basket of deplorables” comment and other missteps may (or may not) have hurt her as much as they did. Conversely, the Access Hollywood tape, the Khizr Khan comments, the Miss Universe fat shaming and so many more scandals could have hurt Trump more, as there would have been less time for the news to fall to the back of voters’ minds.
Ultimately, a shorter campaign could have helped Clinton win the presidency. She ended 2014 with an approval rating near 52%, according to RealClearPolitics. It took until the summer of 2015 for her approval to move underwater at 44% — which was months after the email scandal broke. Clinton never recovered from this level throughout her campaign.
Could the U.S. have designated campaign periods?
The short answer: Probably not, though the reason why may not be what you think.
The First Amendment is the biggest obstacle to shifting to this sort of fixed system in the U.S., Ornstein said. Telling political candidates they can only campaign within a certain time frame impedes on this fundamental American right.
“We have a First Amendment, and that means that putting sharp restrictions on any kind of campaigning would become difficult,” Ornstein said.
Israeli law also provides for freedom of speech, but unlike the U.S., those laws are not absolute and the government has previously been able to regulate speech.
“Constitutional rights in Israel ... are not considered absolute and have to be balanced against competing constitutional rights, such as the right of equality,” according to the Library of Congress.
Overturning the Citizens United ruling to change campaign finance laws in the U.S. would likely require a constitutional amendment. The Constitution was last amended in 1992, when Congress made it more difficult for its members to give themselves a pay raise.
Short campaign periods would likely run into issues with voting laws. For example, states like Florida and North Carolina give voters more than a week to cast early ballots. With a shorter campaign period, that means voters would be voting with less information about candidates.
“A major shift in our entire culture”
U.S. political parties do have the power to shrink the duration of campaigns, perhaps by working together to condense the presidential primary season, Israel said. Americans could effectively take the matter into their own hands, he added.
“If we’re going to condense the amount of time spent on elections, it’s going to require a major shift in our entire culture,” Israel said.
That shift, Israel said, begins with the media, which he says could focus less on the horse race of politics in favor of coverage that is “more cerebral and substantive and less politically slick.”
When in office, Jolly advocated for legislation that could have had similar effects. In 2016, the congressman introduced the Stop Act, a bill that would have prohibited members of Congress from directly soliciting contributions. He believed this could help Congress focus on doing its job rather than raising campaign money. That bill went nowhere before Jolly lost re-election in 2016.
“It wasn’t a stunt,” Jolly, who took a pledge to not personally raise money, said. “I was trying to introduce a piece of campaign finance legislation that made sense, that everyone could agree to, that could work. Voters are hungry for this type of reform.”
Ornstein said he’s skeptical any of these changes could work, and he questioned whether politicians and organizations would ever be willing to put an end to permanent campaigns.
“We can talk about how it would be wonderful if we just restrict the campaign season to six months before the election, or put some other restrictions like other countries have in place,” Ornstein said. “But they’re simply not going to work, and there are too many ways you can publicize yourself and attack others year-round.”