American Elections: How Long Is Too Long?

The upside of the endless presidential race

You got somewhere better to be? (Mike Blake / Reuters)

By one measure, the U.S. presidential campaign will be 597 days old on Election Day in November. That’s 14,328 hours, for those accustomed to CNN’s Countdown Clock. Parents who were rocking a newborn when Ted Cruz declared his candidacy are now running after a toddler. In this timeframe, Emma Roller reckons in The New York Times, “we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections.”

It’s difficult to say definitively that the United States has the longest election process in the world. Some countries have legally defined campaign periods—typically several weeks or months—while others do not. In parliamentary democracies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, the prime minister can call early elections, shaking up the timeline. And even in those nations with a fixed period for the official campaign, there is frequently an extended unofficial campaign. Yes, in the time that elapsed between Cruz announcing his presidential bid and Cruz endorsing Donald Trump, France technically could have elected 39 presidents. But that’s comparing pommes to oranges. France has a specified campaign length while the United States doesn’t. And in France, the unofficial campaign starts well before the two-week official campaign, especially now that French political parties are experimenting with U.S.-style primary elections.

Still, America’s presidential race is certainly among the world’s longest political campaigns. And many Americans aren’t happy about it. For years, at least half the country has been telling pollsters the campaign is too long. A popular bumper sticker this cycle captures the mood: “Giant Meteor 2016—Just End It Already.” So why do Americans keep doing this to themselves? What is the upside?

The downsides are pretty clear. Nearly 60 percent of Americans say they’re exhausted by the glut of election coverage, even as heightened interest in the 2016 race drives that coverage. The length of the campaign, moreover, is one reason billions of dollars are poured into U.S. presidential contests, when mere millions are spent on elections in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom. The steep cost of running for president, in turn, only makes the campaign longer; candidates need time to fundraise.

America’s combination of “a relatively short presidential term and an unusually long election process” also obstructs the work of U.S. policymakers, particularly those focused on foreign relations, Stephen Walt wrote in Foreign Policy in 2012. For at least a quarter of each presidential term, politics eclipses policy in government and in public discourse. The longer the campaign, Walt argued, the more time foreign leaders have to take advantage of a vulnerable, distracted, crisis-averse U.S. president. This week, for example, The New York Times reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin is rushing to strengthen the Assad regime’s position in Syria’s civil war while the Obama administration is constrained by the U.S. election.

But there are also positive aspects of the U.S. process that may be difficult to spot at the conclusion of an often-ugly, seemingly endless campaign. Primary elections, which have been a fixture in U.S. presidential campaigns since the 1970s, drag out the race. But they also afford American voters more say in who their party’s presidential nominee is than they had when party leaders chose the standard-bearers—a positive development for those who favor more direct forms of democracy.

“From my experience in more than 65 countries around the world, in those [parliamentary] systems in which elections can be called on short notice, it reinforces the control over the candidatures by parties and incumbents,” said Patrick Merloe, the director of electoral programs at the National Democratic Institute, which among other things monitors elections around the world. “In those circumstances where there is a more open and extended political competition, the potential for [political] outsiders to marshal support is increased.”

Perhaps most importantly, as the political scientists Will Jennings and Christopher Wlezien found in analyzing more than 26,000 polls in 45 countries since 1942, voter preferences for a particular candidate or party take longer to form in presidential elections than in parliamentary ones. “People’s preferences crystallize, and it takes time for them to crystallize when they’re focused on particular candidates by comparison with parties,” Wlezien told me.

The graph below plots polls from presidential and parliamentary campaigns beginning 200 days before the election. “Root mean squared error” on the Y-axis is a measure of how predictive these polls were of the election’s outcome; the lower the root mean squared error, the more predictive the polling was. The data indicates that early polls are significantly more predictive of the final result in parliamentary elections than in presidential elections. But within 50 days of the election, as voter preferences harden, these differences largely disappear.

Accuracy of Polls in Presidential vs. Parliamentary Systems, Over Time

In explaining the discrepancy, Jennings and Wlezien cite a fundamental distinction between parliamentary and presidential systems: Parliamentary elections are primarily contests among political parties, while presidential elections are primarily contests among individual candidates. Voters may simply need more time to choose between, say, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton than they do between the British Conservative and Labour parties, especially in an election when Trump has had such a topsy-turvy relationship with the Republican Party he supposedly represents. As Jennings and Wlezien put it:

[I]n presidential elections voters select an individual to represent the country, whereas in parliamentary elections they select a legislature, which in turn produces a government. In presidential elections, there often is greater uncertainty over the identity of the candidates. Even to the extent the candidates are known, information about their attributes and policies often is not known until later still in the election cycle. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, parties tend to dominate. This is important because dispositions toward parties, while not fixed, are more durable than those toward candidates. Even to the extent party leaders are important to voters in parliamentary systems, their identities typically are known well in advance, earlier than presidential candidates.

No surprise, then, that the United States is home to one of the world’s longest political campaigns, Wlezien said: The U.S. is “a presidential system. It doesn’t have a formal campaign—we don’t call elections, they’re predetermined. [The presidential race involves] a lot of money, a lot of power—it’s a big job. A lot of people want the job.” The United States is also a big country with a free and vigorous press. Add up all these factors, and you have a campaign that began way back when America was debating the true colors of The Dress.

It’s an open question whether voters emerge from long campaigns with a superior understanding of candidates and policy issues than voters in short campaigns. But after studying 113 elections in 13 countries, the political scientists Randolph Stevenson and Lynn Vavreck concluded that voters may have a better grasp of economic conditions in their country when campaigns are “long enough”—a threshold they defined as at least six weeks.

In any election cycle, misinformation and disinformation vie with factual information, Stevenson and Vavreck note. But over the course of an extended, competitive campaign, factual information tends to win out. “Shorter campaigns may produce ‘happier’ voters, in the sense that they do not watch leaders attacking each other for so long,” they write, “but shorter campaigns may also produce less ‘enlightened’ voters who don’t know as much about the candidates and issues facing them.”

The challenge for the media is to embrace the upsides of America’s long election rather than the downsides—to focus less on “who won the week,” who’s up or down in the latest polls, and who just said what about whom, and more on the evidence that has accumulated over the last year and a half regarding the key issues in the campaign, the candidates’ experience, and their policy proposals. Americans, after all, have 500 days’ worth of clues about how their would-be leaders would actually lead the country. U.S. presidential elections generate a lot of useless noise, but they also convey a powerful signal about those applying for the most powerful job on the planet.