Endless campaign, endlessly annoyed voters

Susan Reimer says it can't possibly be good for democracy for presidential contests to last for almost two years

January 09, 2012|Susan Reimer

Presidential elections have shoehorned their way onto a list that includes Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter and Halloween: treasured national events that have become irritating, if not down right offensive, by how early they start and how long they last.

(This list does not include tax season or bathing-suit season, both of which would be unpleasant no matter when they started or how long they lasted.)

If you are like me, you have the sense that we have been sorting among possible Republican candidates since March of last year — and the election is still almost 11 months away.

Wait. We have been sorting among possible Republican candidates since March of last year. And the election is still almost 11 months away.

During that time, the various Republican contenders left standing have been pulling ahead and dropping back — almost like a Whac-A-Mole game — with alarming rapidity. Wasn't Newt Gingrich the front-runner hours before the Iowa caucuses? And didn't he finish fourth?

And do you even remember former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was supposed to be the boy-savior of the Republican Party? We lost him in August. Seems like a million years ago.

This whole primary process began in the early 20th century, when voters became disillusioned with the fact that the eventual nominee was chosen by party big dogs in some kind of back-room bargain. Now, with the last primaries in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands not set until the end of June, I would be willing to turn it back over to those guys with the cigars.

You could argue that this unendurable process is the trial by fire that allows a true candidate to grow strong and forge a meaningful impression on the minds of voters, as well as for a party to examine the full range of its beliefs.

But instead, what you have is a marathon during which just about everyone will stumble, leaving us with a Darwinian survivor — the one who hasn't committed a fatal mistake or mortally wounded the party.

There is no other way to explain Mr. Gingrich, who declared his candidacy and then went on an ocean cruise and who rose to the top of the polls, albeit briefly, even though most of his staff had quit and he was out of money.

Or Rick Santorum, who has placed himself outside all but the most extreme of Republican belief systems but still finished second in Iowa by a mere eight votes.

Do you remember Robert Kennedy? He declared in March of 1968 and was the de facto nominee just weeks later, after winning California in June. Or Richard Nixon, who only declared in February of that year, then won the nomination and the presidency.

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama observed that he had been campaigning for 15 months and "there are babies who are now walking and talking who were born since I announced for president."

This campaign officially began in March 2010, when Mr. Pawlenty formed his exploratory committee (unless you believe, as some do, that Mitt Romney is still campaigning from 2008).

The longer these campaigns last, the crankier the voters get — and cranky voters can make poor choices.

And the longer these campaigns last, the nastier they become, leaving this country scraped and bruised on Election Day, not unified and ready for a fresh start.

Certainly, these early primaries can make for wonderful election-year narratives. Remember the surprise second-place finish in Iowa in 1976 of a Georgia peanut farmer and his stunning follow-up victory in New Hampshire? Or Sen. Edmund Muskie's tearful unraveling in New Hampshire in 1972 after the Manchester Union-Leader tore into his wife?

But these primaries can also have the same effect on voters as Christmas carols in October. And it isn't a good one.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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