Why the Presidential Race Starts Earlier Every Cycle

It's not your imagination—but you should blame the candidates, not the media.
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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.)

To try to get beyond the proliferation of new media outlets or eyeball-chasing cable news producers, we narrowed in on just the four largest national newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. The pattern holds, with more than double the early coverage of 2016 compared with 2008; about the same factor for 2000; and five times the early coverage of 1988.

The further back you go, the less early coverage you get.

“Not too many decades ago, speculation about the nominees was thought to be premature even in January of the election year,” says Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia University who wrote a book about the changing timelines of presidential campaigns.

It’s easy to blame the media for becoming enchanted by a far-off event and early polling that’s proven to be pretty worthless as an electoral predictor. There’s a rich history of journalists taking themselves to task for premature speculation.

Just a month after Bill Clinton won reelection, Weekly Standard writer Andrew Ferguson grumbled on a CNN segment about the 2000 election that “we should all be taken out and shot for discussing presidential politics this early.” But he added an important corollary that is even truer today than it was then: “The thing is, you can’t help it because the candidates themselves are already out there raising money, trying to put staffs together and so, they’re making us talk about it.”

Indeed, the rules of the game—and especially campaign finance—have changed so much that candidates can’t sit on the sidelines the way they once could, so reporters pay attention.

Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the early 1990s, once pushed back against CNN host Bernard Shaw’s assertion that his party was conceding the 1992 election to George H.W. Bush. “I’m perfectly pleased with the situation. And I’m glad there are no candidates out there now. I think the public can’t tolerate a three-year campaign. I think candidates get stale, the public gets bored, people make unnecessary mistakes,” he said.

That was July 1990. If Brown’s comments were applied to the 2016 election cycle, he would be speaking four months from now and he would sound wildly out of touch. His comments, for instance, would have come a full 18 months after a couple of Hillary Clinton superfans formed Ready for Hillary, the grassroots super PAC building support for a potential Clinton candidacy. And it would be seven months after some of the biggest donors and best strategists in the Democratic Party organized themselves in a shadow campaign-in-waiting.

“The media coverage is absolutely warranted,” says Lichtman, the historian. “The candidates are talking to donors. They’re out in Iowa. They’re establishing their brands.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the ever-earlier campaign. Candidates must run longer and longer to getting elected; those who can’t raise large sums of money are excluded; and polarization, already at record highs, might only be reinforced by the constant horse race.

Christmas, it turns out, does not actually come earlier every year (it just sneaks up on you). Presidential campaigns, on the other hand, do start earlier every four years, just as they cost more. Soon, perhaps, the concept of a campaign “start” will seem foreign, as it will all be one ouroboros of never-ending fundraising and attacks—with none of the sales Black Friday provides.

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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