By Tom Baxter
Like a worn-out accordion, the process by which Americans decide who their next president is going to be has been squeezed and pulled to suit the strategic objectives of each party so much that it’s in need of a thorough refurbishing. That this is unlikely to happen any time soon is no reason not to bring it up.
This year, both fundraising and the Republican nominating process got pulled to the point of painfulness, with both parties amassing gargantuan warchests in this first presidential year after the Citizens United ruling, and most of the cable networks cashing in with an excess of Dancing With the Stars-style debates during the nomination battle.
Now comes the squeeze. When the two candidates met Monday night for the third and final presidential debate, there were only 15 days left before Election Day, the shortest debate-election span since 1992. This year’s election will also have the shortest span in the nation’s history between the close of the final political convention and Election Day: just 61 days, compared to 92 days in the 2000 election.
Though by these measures this is a short General Election campaign season, it wouldn’t be enough to raise any great concerns if elections were still held the way they were in 1996 or 2004, the last years we had an incumbent president facing a challenger. But they aren’t. Early voting has dramatically shortened the election calendar, and squeezed the end of the campaign season much more than the traditional Election Day calendar indicates.
This year, several states began in-person early voting on September 21. Ohio, deemed so critical to the outcome of this election, began in-person voting Oct. 2, the day before the first presidential debate. By the day of the last debate, every state in the union had commenced early voting.
It may not matter so much how long voters have to chew over a debate before they make up their minds. In 1980, when the one and only debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was held just seven days before the election, Reagan’s “There you go again” performance nudged the outcome toward a landslide. But Reagan was already on track to win the election, if by a narrower margin.
But early voters, who grow steadily larger with every election cycle, are increasingly casting their ballots before the debates are concluded, or in many cases before they’ve even begun. That’s a prescription for a monster case of buyer’s remorse. It should make no difference that those who vote early are likely to have the firmest opinions. Debates are an opportunity to change opinions, and that opportunity should be respected.
What could be done to redress this problem? From the perspective of the calendar, the solution is frustratingly simple.
The competition among the states to hold their caucuses and primaries earlier and earlier each presidential cycle has created an enormous hole in the middle of the election year calendar. With that much time to kill, both national conventions could easily be pulled back to July, for the first time since 1960. All the debates could be held before the first early voting begins, or as an accommodation to late deciders, there could be a cluster of early debates and a final closer nearer to Election Day.
Reordering the calendar in this way would likely cause the campaign to become fully engaged before many voters are ready to tune in, but lengthening the national attention span in this way wouldn’t be a bad thing. At a minimum, undecided voters need more time than they will have this year to get past the first big wave of media reaction to the conventions and debates and make up their minds for themselves.
Professionals would argue that a longer stretch of time is needed between the end of the nomination season and the conventions, in order to prepare for the increasingly arduous fall campaigns. What this really means is that more time is needed to focus exclusively on raising money, and is the best argument for doing it the other way. Reducing the time candidates have to focus intensively on fundraising and increasing the time when they have to make choices about how to spend their money could quell some of the excesses of this year, though on that point you have fair reason to be a skeptic.
Because it’s the prerogative of each party to decide when they hold their conventions, there’s little to be done in terms of public pressure to encourage them toward a more useful convention schedule.
But the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates is charged with ensuring that the debates, “as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” You can’t do that if your viewers are already wearing their “I Voted” stickers. It’s time for the commission to come to terms with this problem and update its calendar.