Campaign Event Horizon

The U.S. election season as a reflection on time and space.

Published November 6, 2023

In 365 days, Earth will travel 584 million miles around the sun, the sun will travel 4.5 billion miles in its path around the Milky Way, the Milky Way will travel 11.3 billion miles toward the Andromeda galaxy… and Americans will finally decide who will be president until 2029. 

365 days is a very long time.

Unlike many countries around the world, the U.S. doesn’t have an official campaign “season”—it’s not constitutionally limited. In the 2020 race, former congressman John Delaney set a record by announcing his presidential run on July 28, 2017—a mere 1,194 days before the election. (He dropped out in January 2020, so the early bird didn’t quite get that worm.) 

Long campaign seasons don’t only wear voters out. Incumbents routinely spend more than a year – i.e., half of a congressional term – focusing on the campaign instead of governing. According to people who think that isn’t a problem, longer campaigns give voters more time to do their research. But if that’s the case, then it must still not have been enough time for the 34 percent of eligible voters in 2020 who didn’t turn out at all – and that was a record low number.

Anyway, here is our periodic reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Get a load of these functioning democracies:

  • In Canada, federal election campaigns must be between 37 and 51 days in length. Thor longest ever was 74 days, in 1926, and that followed a constitutional crisis (the adorably named King-Byng Affair). 
  • In 2007, Mexico shortened its presidential campaign season from 186 days to 90
  • In Australia, an election happens between 33 and 58 days after the government orders it – and on a Saturday!
  • Japan is the most no-nonsense of all: Candidates have 12 days to make their case.

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network points out that all these countries also have robust media-monitoring regulators, and there’s the rub. Besides having no mandated campaign duration, the U.S. is also one of the very few countries in the world with no spending limits during the campaign season – though we do implement contribution limits. This creates a perpetual fundraising arms race, with candidates sustaining their campaigns by asking more supporters to give more money, repeatedly and over long periods of time. After all, it takes  a lot of cash: Political spending for the 2020 election totaled a mind-boggling $14.4 billion

To establish and agree on campaign time and spending limits? That would require bipartisan policy change. Meanwhile, the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years. Any bets on which will happen first?