Why Are American Elections so Long?
Long campaigns cause candidates to prioritize fundraising, but shorter ones favor party-line voting.
This July, Japan will hold elections to its House of Councillors, the upper chamber of its national legislature. And yet, as of today, no voter has seen an ad, a poster, or a speech for that election; the law prohibits campaigning more than 17 days prior to the election. (The limit is 12 days for elections to the lower chamber.)
Japan is hardly alone in creating such limits. Many democracies feature defined legal limits on campaign lengths. Some parliamentary systems like those in Canada and the United Kingdom allow the majority party to call for a snap election, functionally limiting the length of a national campaign to months or weeks.
To some Americans, such limitations might seem quite welcome. We are, of course, more than a year and a half away from the 2020 presidential election, and we’re already well into the campaigning period, with candidates having already done numerous speeches, visits, and major news interviews. A good many people are undoubtedly already sick of an election for which all the candidates haven’t even officially declared.
Beyond just being tedious, there are important downsides to long campaigns. They are expensive to run, meaning that candidates have to raise more money and spend more time with donors and less with voters. And unlike in parliamentary systems where there are clear demarcations between governing and campaigning periods, American candidates are often doing both simultaneously. The estimated four or more hours a day members of Congress spend fundraising could be spent on more useful legislative activities.
So why are American elections so long, and—setting aside First Amendment issues for a moment—would an enforced limit to campaigns be useful in the United States?
A lot of the reason American campaigns seem so lengthy is our focus on the presidency. Some people are examining runs for our congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races in 2020 right now, but there’s very little active campaigning yet. Also, even general presidential election campaigns don’t look especially long when examined separate from primaries. Those campaigns, by custom, kick into high gear around Labor Day of the election year, and the bulk of spending, advertising, and candidate travel occurs in the two months between then and November. That’s not a terribly long campaign by international standards.
However, there has been growth in the length of presidential primary campaigns over the past half century. Prior to the 1960s, many candidates only campaigned modestly prior to primary elections. Some, like Dwight Eisenhower, basically didn’t campaign at all; their candidacies functionally began at their party’s nominating convention.
Reforms in the early 1970s that expanded the use of primary elections for selecting delegates and undermined the deliberative role of nominating conventions fundamentally changed the calculations for presidential aspirants. Primaries went from optional to essential for winning the nomination. This meant that jumping in early, as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter did, to raise money and public awareness could give one an edge over one’s competitors. Ever since, candidates have been entering earlier, and campaigns have been getting longer, roughly.
But our primary length isn’t totally distinct from similar processes in other democracies. Many other democracies do not have primary elections, and, in place of them, people interested in running for office seek the favor of the party leaders who determine nominations. Prospective party nominees in Japan, Canada, and the U.K. are doing the same thing months before an election that American candidates are doing: courting those who will make the party’s nomination. This appears less as formal campaigning when there aren’t primaries involved, but it’s still a sort of campaign.
And there is value in lengthy, American-style campaigns—held in public view and not behind party doors—even if many Americans find them annoying. In a 2000 study in the British Journal of Political Science, Randolph Stevenson and Lynn Vavreck conducted a cross-sectional analysis of democracies with different campaign lengths and found that longer campaigns gave voters a better understanding of economic conditions and a better ability to apply those conditions to their voting behavior. That is, voters learn more from longer campaigns.
Meanwhile, a 2015 study by political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Will Jennings found that, in a presidential system, in which voters are evaluating differences between individuals, they take a longer time to reach a decision than in parliamentary elections, where they’re choosing between parties. Party stances typically don’t change much from election to election and are well known by voters, while individual candidates require some time to be evaluated. Shorter campaigns, meanwhile, may just end up forcing voters to be more reliant upon parties and less open to new voices.
Providing voters with additional information doesn’t, of course, guarantee they’ll use that information well. But longer campaigns pretty well ensure that candidates will be vetted—that voters will know their strengths and flaws and key issue stances before casting a vote. That’s not something to cast aside lightly.