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.