The 2016 Campaign Never Ended

In Japan campaigns last 12 days, in Australia they last 33 to 68 days, and in America they last forever. Why?

Warren, Trump, and Biden posters combined
Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Americans may feel as though Christmas lasts forever, but at worst the holiday spreads out over two months, from Halloween until January 2. We do, however, have one truly endless season: campaign season. According to CNN, the 2016 presidential campaign took 597 days, which seems accurate if you believe the campaign ended on Election Day 2016, which everyone knows it did not. It’s still going strong and will continue going strong until at least Election Day 2020. In Japan campaigns last 12 days, in Australia they last 33 to 68 days, and in America they last forever.

The forever campaign is several orders of magnitude worse than Bing Crosby and eggnog in early November, is it not? Some people like eggnog, but no one likes politicians running for higher office. So, as Americans, we must engage in the very American tradition of figuring out who’s to blame for this agony.

Democrats geared up to defeat President Trump as soon as they accepted they’d lost to him, which hasn’t actually happened yet. Trump, for his part, started running for reelection the moment he was sworn in: “You’re in the first 100 days of an administration, and you’re doing campaign rallies for reelection. It was a very, very, very strange thing,” a former White House official told The Atlantic in April.

The thing is, no one can reasonably claim that the 2020 Democratic candidates or Trump started the campaign season we’re living through (and will always be living through). Only one of the 2020 Democrats ran in 2016, Bernie Sanders, and he announced after Hillary Clinton, likely without thinking he had a chance in hell. Trump wasn’t the first Republican to announce his candidacy for 2016—that’d be Ted Cruz, who told the world he would be president in March 2015. That was before Trump called his wife ugly and said his dad murdered JFK.

It doesn’t make sense to blame Cruz, either, though, because everyone knows the 2016 election actually began long before anyone announced a run to replace President Obama. The race to replace him began as soon as Obama won reelection, in 2012. And the 2012 campaign (which, by this logic, we’re still living through) began in 2010: Two years into Obama’s presidency, on the eve of the midterm elections, then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a New Jersey newspaper, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Can we blame McConnell, then? Not really. He was just stating the consensus view of his party. The real culprit is whoever created the mind-set that the opposition party’s main job is to defeat the governing party in the next election, by denying its ability to govern, by campaigning instead of governing. The historian Kevin Kruse told me that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is perhaps most responsible for “a scorched-earth style of politics that destroyed the traditional bipartisan clubbiness and put members on a constant war footing.” War footing, I take it, means campaign footing as opposed to governance footing.

Blame Newt, then? Maybe. It depends on one’s view of history. Taking a more structural outlook, the endless campaign began around 1968, when, as The New York Times put it, “Democrats changed their nomination rules after their tumultuous 1968 convention, encouraging more states to hold primaries.” The primary system forced candidates to woo voters up close and personal. Whatever the candidates and voters may have felt about that, the states liked it. And because the states understood that early voters have more power than later voters to pick the eventual nominee, they jockeyed to hold their primaries as early as possible in an election year. (Remember the concept of an election “year”?) Many states experienced what pundits call “New Hampshire envy,” since New Hampshire has the first-in-the-nation primary by law. Of course, no one suffers from “New Hampshire envy” anymore. Everyone’s too busy in Iowa, which is now the king of presidential primaries—excuse me, caucuses.

Anyone serious about becoming president—so that they can campaign as an incumbent, without having actually governed—must eat fried things at the Iowa State Fair, which takes place in mid-August of the year before the election, or about three years after the election, depending on one’s point of view, not that anything ends or begins anymore. Of course the really serious candidates attend not only the fair but also high-school theater productions and garage sales and whatever, which ultimately led Senator Kamala Harris to joke, “I’m fucking moving to Iowa.” (Harris, one of the first really serious 2020 candidates, is no longer running for president.)

The more time the candidates spend in Iowa, the more time we all spend in Iowa—spiritually if not literally. Who among us has not attended a dinner party during which people who don’t do anything remotely political for a living knowingly mention the Iowa straw poll and the latest from Dubuque County?

It used to be that Labor Day was the demarcation line for political campaigns. FDR kicked off his 1936 campaign with a Labor Day speech in 1936. Yes, the same year as the election! But a lot has changed since 1936, including the primary system, as mentioned, as well as the need for “content” at news organizations, which broadcast or publish not just once a day, in the morning or evening, but every minute. Come to think of it, maybe the internet-addled media are the real culprits here. And maybe the need for news drama is not only how we got such a long election season, but also how we ended up with a president who’s very entertaining but does not appear to read, or to understand the basics of the Constitution or how anything operates.

Whoever’s to blame, no one’s happy about any of this—except maybe network executives. And that is why we may be able to say “Merry Christmas,” but we’ll never be able to say “Happy Campaign.”