The Permanent Campaign: Life in Nonstop Election Season

By: Samantha Bayne

On this trip, we often joke that Iowa caucus season began yesterday. The non-Iowans reading this article may laugh — the Iowa caucuses are more than a year from now, and we just inaugurated the new Congress. It can’t be starting yet…right? With Elizabeth Warren as the first major candidate to hop into the race just before 2018 ended, many other big names have followed suit, with Kirsten Gillibrand announcing just last night. The timing of these announcements is evident of the “permanent campaign,” a concept that details how campaigning and governing have become increasingly blurred as the focus is constantly on re-election. The permanent campaign as it continues to grow longer will have strongly negative impacts on the electorate and the state of our democracy.

The immediate transition from election to campaigning can be traced to funding needs. Brendan Doherty, a professor at the US Naval Academy and expert on fundraising, points out that recent court decisions have led to less regulated campaign finances on independent entities but continuing limits on individual contributions. As a result, not only has campaign spending gone up exponentially, but so has the time spent on fundraising. The 2016 presidential campaign alone was $2.4 billion dollars total. In order to have a viable campaign, candidates HAVE to spend a lot of time fundraising. And since campaigns cannot directly coordinate with Super PACS and other independent entitites, and individual donations are still limited to $2700 per cycle, candidates are forced into collecting relatively small donations from individuals so they have cash on hand they can control.

The 24/7 news cycle also is to blame for the permanent campaign. Elections get ratings. Consumers are interested in the political drama that surrounds the next upcoming election. Any major political issue has to be about 2020. The shutdown is about 2020. The Mueller report is about 2020. The nonexistent infrastructure bill is about 2020. As Brian Cusack, the Editor-in-Chief of the Hill noted, “this is a show.” Everything that has happened during this presidency has been exciting, interesting, and more importantly, suspenseful. Every single political move MUST be a strategic move for the next campaign season. No one knows what will happen next election.

Drake students with Senator Cory Booker. Many have predicted that he is a likely candidate for president, and he is expected to announce in the next few weeks.

Many of the reporters that we visited during this trip spoke about the pace of their work is incredibly urgent under this presidency. The political news cycle seems to constantly be reinventing itself; something that matters now won’t matter in a month. Reporters are forced to treat everything as newsworthy, even if it truly doesn’t have an impact on the next election cycle. As Former Rep. Tom Davis says, the “crap-to-content” ratio is exceptionally high. Instead of letting policy happen, we focus on the politics; we allow our desire for interesting news cloud the need for information on the upcoming 2020 primary season.

The result of fundraising demands and high media attention means the election cycle has definitely already begun. The Democrats have a “wide open” field, and there are upwards of 10 or even 20 names being tossed around as likely candidates. With such a big field, candidates will likely only receive a fraction of the delegates, which means the Democratic race will go on for a while. That doesn’t include the possibility of a Republican primary that, if it happens, will be a bloody battle. The Iowa caucuses aren’t until February 3, 2020, and most states do not have primaries until the summer. If the caucus season started yesterday, then we’re all in it for the long haul.

So what’s the impact here? Citizens may not feel like they have as strong of a voice. Candidates may choose to form exploratory committees, but often the direction comes from donors or party leaders, and not voters. Ed Kilgore writes, “In these days of permanent campaigning and never-ending election cycles, it’s hard to recall the days when presidential candidates had to be ‘drafted’ by some group of well-wishers.” Everyone runs, and those with the most resources end up winning the primaries. As candidates drop out, states with later primaries may feel like they have less of an impact in their choices. It is a dangerous game to play when citizens aren’t included in party decisions.

Name recognition also plays a critical role in voting decisions. When money has become so important to the success of the campaign, it is vital to have a reputation preceding your candidacy. The longer you spend trying to prove your resume, the less time you have to collect votes and dollars. Already, pundits are predicting that a candidate such as Representative Delaney is incredibly unlikely to receive the nomination because of their low popularity, despite being the first candidate to enter the race. When you’re playing the long game, it’s easier to start a few yards ahead.

And finally, I believe that the longer the campaign, the lower the turnout. I’d love to study this more, because not all of us can be as excited about politics as the students on this trip. Iowa certainly experiences one of the longest and most eventful election seasons, and 15.7% of Iowans voted in the 2016 caucus. However, this is compared to the overall turnout of 28.5% of eligible voters who voted in primaries or caucuses across the country. Of course, this discrepancy can be traced to quite a few factors, the inaccessibility of the caucus being a strong one. However, voters get tired. And exhausted. And sick of picking up the phone for another young intern phonebanking. Not being able to escape politics could mean voter apathy, which is the exact opposite of the goals of the permanent campaign.

Our campaigns and our news cycles have to find a balance. Our elections are so intense and expensive that they require lengthy cycles, but a cycle shouldn’t begin the day that a general election is over. One alum stated that freshmen congressmen were already being taught how to campaign for the next election. Even though I’m a politics major who thrives on this focus, I am worried about the state of our democracy if the focus is only on reelection. As another alum asked, “who suffers when power outweighs policy?” At some point, voters should demand that our Congressmen spend time not fundraising, not campaigning, but governing. Campaigns are inherently temporary; they should not be permanent fixtures of our lives.

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