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Why Are Presidential Campaigns So Long? There's Plenty Of Blame To Go Around


Speaking of the presidential campaign, did you know we've got nearly eight months to go? Doesn't it already seem as though it's gone on forever? NPR's Sam Sanders went to find out why it feels like this campaign season seems so, so long.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: It's not just me.

So finish my sentence - this election is so long...

TERRY RAYMENT: This election is so long, I just want it to be over with. Like, it's just crushing everything else in the news. It's just, like, a big iceberg.

SANDERS: It's the iceberg, we're the Titanic?

RAYMENT: Exactly.

SANDERS: Yes, I'm even talking to strangers about this now. That was me with Terry Rayment in Union Station recently. And we are right - from the first time the first candidate for president announced he was running - Ted Cruz in March of 2015...


TED CRUZ: Today, I am announcing that I'm running for president of the United States.


SANDERS: From that day until the election in November, 596 days will have passed.

STEVEN SCHIER: The election process is the longest in the world because no one is in charge of it.

SANDERS: That's Steven Schier. He's a professor of political science at Carleton College. For him, it's all about federalism.

SCHIER: We have a federal system with 50 different state authorities and 50 different state parties. And they have different incentives about how to proceed in the presidential delegate selection.

SANDERS: So in other countries, government is in charge of the whole thing. And sometimes they'll even put laws in place to limit how long elections and campaigns can be. For us - not so much. But even with that, campaigns haven't always been this long. Some say a big shift started because of a man named Jimmy Carter and his early success in a place called Iowa. Here's Robert A. Strong.

ROBERT A. STRONG: After Carter's surprise victory there and his immediate victory a week later in New Hampshire, we then had an earlier notion of how candidates would sort themselves out.

SANDERS: Strong is a Jimmy Carter historian and professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. He says before Iowa became a thing, the race was just shorter. But...

STRONG: It's way bigger than Jimmy Carter. It's way bigger.

SANDERS: Actually, I'm part of the problem.

STRONG: The driver is the media attention.

SANDERS: Strong and Schier both agree mass media play a big role - endless polling months before Iowa's caucuses, stories on who's meeting with what donor, who's going to what events, who's hired what consultants - all breathlessly reportedly 24-7 online and on multiple cable networks. It gives us network their best ratings outside of war coverage since - well, since the last election. But Kathleen Hall Jamieson says not all media coverage of campaigns is part of the problem.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The amount of coverage is not as problematic as is the kind of coverage.

SANDERS: Jamieson is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. For her, coverage of the horserace - not so good.

JAMIESON: The voters don't need to become campaign consultants. They don't need to know what tactics are most effective in winning and losing. What the voters need to know is who are you, candidate? What are you going to do? What are your talents? What's your background? What's your record?

SANDERS: Jamieson does say America might need a campaign season that's longer than other countries. In a parliamentary system in, say, the U.K., it can be shorter, she argues, because party platforms are already pretty set by the parties. But in America, it's different. The candidates set the platform. There's more to figure out. So how do we get through this?

JAMIESON: Ask yourself - what do I know today about a candidate that I didn't know three months ago? And if the answer is I know something that's important to me, than the longer campaign has helped you.

SANDERS: Keep asking yourself that question for the next several months. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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