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Ask Civics 101: Why Is The American Campaign Season So Long?


In the United States, campaign season begins long before primaries and caucuses, and ages before the general election. In the past few presidential elections, some people announced their candidacy nearly two years before election day.

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When, just over a year before the 2016 election,  Joe Biden was asked why he didn't throw his hat in the ring, he responded that it was too late for him to be a competitive candidate.

Why does our campaign season stretch on for so long? There's nothing that says it has to...which is, in fact, part of the reason why it does.

While other nations have laws limiting campaigning too far out from a general election (take Mexico, for example, where election season is limited to 147 days), the United States has nothing of the kind. Iowa tends to hold its caucus in early February of an election year, with New Hampshire and Nevada not far behind. If you want to make a splash in the big candidate pool in time to win those early elections, it makes sense to declare early and get your campaign up and running. 

We haven't always done it this way, though. In the early days of our nation, the presidential nominees were selected by Congress, and later by nominating conventions in the summer before the election. It wasn't until after World War II that primaries really started to catch on. These early elections meant that candidates had to appeal to the American people long before they recieved a nomination. This also allowed dark horse candidates like John F. Kennedy (who ran an eleven-month campaign) to vie for attention. The more popular primaries became, the more important they became, which meant that candidates had to work harder, earlier. 

And they had to spend more. Way more. These longer campaign seasons necessitated major fundraising just to keep going. This isn't a problem in a country whose laws have made it easier and easier to raise and spend millions of dollars in your presidential bid. 

Despite the fact that these long campaigns are designed in part to get our attention, many Americans are less than thrilled with the interminable ads, fliers and political bandying about that comes with election season. And for some, the disillusionment of campaign fatigue is compounded by the disillusionment of campaign financing.

Still, a shorter campaign season isn't necessarily a better campaign season. In parliamentary systems where the Prime Minister kicks off the season by dissolving parliament, the party in power can trigger campaigning when they're on a popularity upswing. In Japan, where election season is capped at twelve days, many argue that the restricted time prevents the infusion of new ideas and unknown candidates.

Either way, our system is unlikely to change any time soon, if at all. Enjoy the breather after this year's general election. It won't last long. 

Ask Civics 101 airs each Monday on NHPR during All Things Considered. Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, hosts of the Civics 101 podcast, answer listeners' questions about civics in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 presidential election. Email them at Civics101@NHPR.org

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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