It has been exactly 590 days — more than a year and a half — now since the 2016 presidential campaign season kicked off in earnest with Ted Cruz’s announcement of his campaign at Liberty University in Virginia. Even with the election falling on November 8 this year, the latest possible date, however, this election will still clock in at 58 days shorter than the longest in modern US history — that honor goes to the 2008 election cycle and Hillary Clinton’s January 20, 2007 announcement.
Compared with much of the rest of the democratic world, however, America is an outlier. Last year, Canada held the longest political contest in its modern history — it lasted just 11 weeks, about 13 percent of the length of this year’s cycle in the US. The United Kingdom, Australia, and France all have dramatically shorter electoral contests than the US as well. In Japan, by law, the contest can last only 12 days. For all the additional resources we pour into our campaigns, however, there’s little reason to believe they result in better decisions.
“We all know the folk wisdom that you should sleep on it before you make a big decision,” Sheena Iyengar, an expert in choice and decision-making and a professor at Columbia Business School explains. “And science supports the idea that impulse decisions are often wrong. But beyond that, decision quality doesn’t rise as a function of time; it rises as a function of the quality of information decision makers have, and their ability to categorize that information.”
The American presidential campaign wasn’t always the nearly two-year marathon it has become. In 1972, the Iowa Caucus was moved up to its present first-in-the-nation status not in an attempt to garner attention from the media and the candidates for the state, but, according to a 1988 article in the New York Times, due to the cumbersome process of mimeographing the democratic party’s campaign rules and procedures.
In 1968 the upstart Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy rode a wave of anti-Vietnam War sentiment to victory in the state primaries, winning the majority of votes cast, only to be outfoxed on the floor of the county and state caucuses that followed by supporters of vice president Hubert Humphrey, who had a superior grasp of the convention rules. Eager to avoid a repeat in his state, Clif Larson, the new chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party determined that he’d ensure every candidate in Iowa would have a printed copy of the caucus rules in their hand every step of the way from the start of the caucuses up to the party convention in May. Printing all of the necessary material, it was estimated, would take four months, pushing the start of the caucuses back to January.
In 1976, a big win in the caucus for the little-known governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned heavily in the state in the months before, propelled him to national victory. Recognizing the opportunity to gain influence amongst the candidates, other states began moving their primaries and caucuses up. With candidates in need of funding to campaign ahead of the earlier caucus, announcements began to creep earlier, leaving us with the lengthy political calendar we face today.
The historical accident of our extended election cycle, however, has very real costs — an estimated $5 billion this time around, according to the Economist. Much of that trove has gone to covering the tremendous cost of a yearlong national advertising campaign. The massive sums of money required to mount an effective campaign further limit the options voters get to consider and raise the specter of candidates held in thrall to those with the deepest pockets. The barrage of advertising that money produces, combined with wall-to-wall coverage in the news media has only a marginal effect on the polls, as analysis by Lynn Vavreck of UCLA has found. But candidates can ill afford to ignore even such small gaps, further fueling the arms race between them, to the exhaustion of voters. “There’s only so much information an individual can consider when making a choice,” Iyengar points out.
Even the much-vaunted “October Surprise,” the eleventh hour policy reversal or shocking revelation — like the reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails, and Trump’s shocking Access Hollywood video — seems to have less effect due to the length of the election cycle and, as a result, the degree to which voters have already made their decision. In a review of six recent so-called October surprises, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight found only a marginal or no impact on polling averages and final outcome. “October surprises, in other words, may have less of an effect because they come in October,” he concluded.
If this cycle has seemed unusually long though, it may just come down to this particular set of candidates — and the electorate’s strong distaste for both of them. “What we’ve found experimentally is that when people are presented with a set of bad options, they have an extremely hard time evaluating those choices. That is, it’s difficult for them to assess which is worse, the rock or the hard place,” Iyengar explains. As a result, many would prefer the choice were simply made for them.
That fact may partially explain the popularity of the tongue-in-cheek Giant Meteor 2016 campaign. Public Policy Polling, a democratic-leaning opinion polling organization that has previously looked into questions like whether hipsters should be taxed for “being annoying” (supported by 27 percent of the population), found 13 percent of voters favored the wholesale destruction of the earth by a giant meteor — beating out every other third-party candidate — to a win by either of the major party candidates. A follow-up by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Public Opinion found that 53 percent of millennials preferred the extinction-level event to a Trump presidency, and 34 percent to a Clinton presidency.
The American public seems to be over the grind. Singer-song writer Sheryl Crow started a petition on change.org last week to shorten the election cycle. It’s already garnered more than 55,000 signatures, but it’s hard to see how that might become reality. US primary elections are governed by party rules rather than laws, so any decision in favor of change would have to be made by the parties themselves. The potential costs of unilateral disarmament are simply too high, meaning the decision would have to be mutual — an act of bipartisanship that seems almost laughable in the present political climate.
About the researcher
Sheena S. Iyengar is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, and...Read more.