Way too long US presidential race already under way

2015-03-09 10:43


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Washington - Twenty months away from the November 2016 presidential election, no fewer than two dozen potential candidates are already manoeuvring to run.

Contrast that with the rest of the world.

Israelis will spend about four months picking their next prime minister. In India, the formal campaign season for national elections was even shorter last year. In Canada, federal elections typically last about five weeks, although political positioning starts earlier.

A look at why this exercise in democracy is so long in the US:

The system

American presidents serve for a set four-year term. Future contenders start planning for the next election years in advance, with no limits on what they can spend in the primary elections and often no limits in the general election. That's different from many parliamentary democracies, in which elections may be called without much notice and where there are limits on paid advertising and spending.

The US system is particularly complex. Candidates compete in a maze of state caucuses and primaries to get their party's nomination, then orchestrate party nominating conventions before competing head-to-head in the general election.

Any hope of dominating in the primaries requires months of advance work to lock up supporters in the states. That requires even earlier work to attract key staff and raise the money needed for a strong campaign. This period sometimes is called the invisible primary.

The hired guns

It used to be that pollsters and consultants went all-out during campaigns, then took off to do other things during a period of governing before the next election season, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a long-time observer of politics and author of "The Permanent Campaign and Its Future".

But starting in the 1980s and into the 1990s, he says, "the pollsters and the campaign consultants weren't melting away. They were sticking around".

The end of one election is quickly followed by planning for the next. The mid-presidential term congressional elections are seen as an informal kickoff for the presidential race.

The money chase

As the cost of US campaigns goes up, the quest for campaign cash starts earlier and earlier. The private Centre for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates, parties and independent interest groups put $2.6bn into the 2012 presidential race and $2.8bn into the 2008 race, when there was no incumbent running. Those numbers compare with $1.9bn in 2004 and $1.4bn in 2000.

The candidates

Even though candidates often would rather wait to begin a campaign, not a single politician dares risk being left behind. Once one candidate starts moving, others feel compelled to follow. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush's declaration in December that he actively would explore the possibility of running for president injected momentum into the whole Republican field.

In the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, Republican activist Doug Gross is ready to do his part.

"We're electing the most powerful person in the world," says Gross, "and we probably ought to at least do a pretty good job interview so we know what we're getting before we vote for them".

Read more on:    us  |  us elections 2016

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