Why the Presidential Race Starts Earlier Every Cycle

It's not your imagination—but you should blame the candidates, not the media.
Jason Reed/Reuters

Christmas, it seems, starts earlier and earlier every year, and so do quadrennial presidential elections. “When my father first ran for president in ’92,” Chelsea Clinton said Saturday at an event in Arizona, “campaigns were only 13 months, instead of three and a half years, as they seem to be now.”

The father in question has voiced similar complaints. “I think it’s a big mistake; this constant four-year, peripatetic campaign is not good for America. We need to deal with the business we have before us,” Bill Clinton told CNN in December.

Of course, neither Clinton is a particularly reliable narrator here, because it’s the third member of the Clinton clan who is responsible for much of the ink that has been spilled about an election still more than two and a half years away.

Yet according to a National Journal analysis of media coverage, the Clintons are not wrong. The 2016 presidential race has received more attention earlier than any other in recent memory, quickening a tendency that began some 30 years ago.

“It’s a trend that goes back to at least the 1980s and 1990s when candidates began, especially in open races, formally announcing their presidential campaigns about a year and a half before the elections,” says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University. “But we have seen some acceleration.”

The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut keeps a comprehensive database of public opinion polls, so we asked its researchers to compare similar periods for the last four presidential elections in which there was no incumbent (open elections attract more polls and more attention).

They had nine polls in their records for the 2016 presidential election conducted from January through March of this year. During the same period in 2006, two years before the 2008 presidential election, they found seven polls. For 1998, it was six polls. And for 1990, just two.

But the media coverage is even more telling. Whether we looked at just the four biggest national newspapers, all U.S. publications in the Nexis database, or mentions on broadcast news outlets, we found a clear trend toward more coverage in more-recent presidential cycles, with 2016 in many cases doubling the early coverage of 2008.

So far this year, all American publications in Nexis’s database have written 520 stories that mention the 2016 presidential “election” or “race”—nearly triple the number from January through March of 2006, when there were just 176 stories.

To make sure this wasn’t a fluke, we looked at month-by-month data going back all the way to the month before the preceding presidential election. The early coverage of 2016 easily outstripped the early coverage of 2008 in all but three months, and overall about doubled the number of stories written from October 2004 through March 2006.

“The 2016 election has received more media coverage this year than either the 2012 or 2008 campaigns received during comparable time frames,” the Pew Research Center’s Paul Hitlin noted last year, after conducting similar analysis focused on regional newspapers.

This is, of course, intuitive to anyone paying attention to political news. The New York Times dedicated a reporter to covering Hillary Clinton full time in July of last year, and at least a half-dozen other publications (including National Journal) have, too.

If you turned on the TV or radio in recent months, you were far more likely to find a story about the upcoming presidential election than during a comparable point in the past few election cycles. Just look at the number of times people discussed the next presidential election on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, or the PBS NewsHour from January through March more than two years before the election: In 2016, there were 69 mentions, in 2008 just 31, and in 2000 only four.

Add it all up from the month before the preceding presidential election through March of the midterm year (the same point we’re at now), and the 2016 presidential race made it on the air almost twice as frequently as the 2008 race, and nearly eight times as often as the 2000 race. (To be fair, cable news was still relatively young in 2000.)

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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