The Presidential Election Does Start Earlier Every Four Years (but Don’t Blame the Media)

A review of media coverage shows it starts earlier every presidential cycle — but that’s because the candidates themselves are moving earlier, too.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 07: Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves the event 'Equality for Women is Progress for All' at the United Nations on March 7, 2014 in New York City. The event was part of the United Nations International Women's Day, which is celebrated tomorrow, March 8.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
March 24, 2014, 6:02 p.m.

Christ­mas, it seems, starts earli­er and earli­er every year, and so do quad­ren­ni­al pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. “When my fath­er first ran for pres­id­ent in ‘92,” Chelsea Clin­ton said Sat­urday at an event in Ari­zona, “cam­paigns were only 13 months, in­stead of three and a half years, as they seem to be now.”

The fath­er in ques­tion has voiced sim­il­ar com­plaints. “I think it’s a big mis­take; this con­stant four-year, peri­pat­et­ic cam­paign is not good for Amer­ica. We need to deal with the busi­ness we have be­fore us,” Bill Clin­ton told CNN in Decem­ber.

Of course, neither Clin­ton is a par­tic­u­larly re­li­able nar­rat­or here, be­cause it’s the third mem­ber of the Clin­ton clan who is re­spons­ible for much of the ink that has been spilled about an elec­tion still more than two and a half years away.

Yet, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is of me­dia cov­er­age, the Clin­tons are not wrong. The 2016 pres­id­en­tial race has re­ceived more at­ten­tion earli­er than any oth­er in re­cent memory, quick­en­ing a tend­ency that began some 30 years ago.

“It’s a trend that goes back to at least the 1980s and 1990s when can­did­ates began, es­pe­cially in open races, form­ally an­noun­cing their pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns about a year and a half be­fore the elec­tions,” says Al­lan Licht­man, a polit­ic­al his­tor­i­an at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity. “But we have seen some ac­cel­er­a­tion.”

The Rop­er Cen­ter for Pub­lic Opin­ion Re­search at the Uni­versity of Con­necti­c­ut keeps a com­pre­hens­ive data­base of pub­lic opin­ion polls, so we asked its re­search­ers to com­pare sim­il­ar peri­ods for the last four pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in which there was no in­cum­bent (open elec­tions at­tract more polls and more at­ten­tion).

They had nine polls in their re­cords for the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion con­duc­ted from Janu­ary through March of this year. Dur­ing the same peri­od in 2006, two years be­fore the 2008 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, they found sev­en polls. For 1998, it was six polls. And for 1990, just two.

But the me­dia cov­er­age is even more telling. Wheth­er we looked at just the four biggest na­tion­al news­pa­pers, all U.S. pub­lic­a­tions in the Nex­is data­base, or men­tions on broad­cast news out­lets, we found a clear trend to­ward more cov­er­age in more-re­cent pres­id­en­tial cycles, with 2016 in many cases doub­ling the early cov­er­age of 2008.

So far this year, all Amer­ic­an pub­lic­a­tions in Nex­is’s data­base have writ­ten 520 stor­ies that men­tion the 2016 pres­id­en­tial “elec­tion” or “race” — nearly triple the num­ber from Janu­ary through March of 2006, when there were just 176 stor­ies.

To make sure this wasn’t a fluke, we looked at month-by-month data go­ing back all the way to the month be­fore the pre­ced­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The early cov­er­age of 2016 eas­ily out­stripped the early cov­er­age of 2008 in all but three months, and over­all about doubled the num­ber of stor­ies writ­ten from Oc­to­ber 2004 through March 2006.

“The 2016 elec­tion has re­ceived more me­dia cov­er­age this year than either the 2012 or 2008 cam­paigns re­ceived dur­ing com­par­able time frames,” the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s Paul Hitlin noted last year, after con­duct­ing sim­il­ar ana­lys­is fo­cused on re­gion­al news­pa­pers.

This is, of course, in­tu­it­ive to any­one pay­ing at­ten­tion to polit­ic­al news. The New York Times ded­ic­ated a re­port­er to cov­er­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton full time in Ju­ly of last year, and at least a half-dozen oth­er pub­lic­a­tions (in­clud­ing Na­tion­al Journ­al) have, too.

If you turned on the TV or ra­dio in re­cent months, you were far more likely to find a story about the up­com­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion than dur­ing a com­par­able point in the past few elec­tion cycles. Just look at the num­ber of times people dis­cussed the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion on CNN, MS­N­BC, Fox News, NPR, or the PBS News­Hour from Janu­ary through March more than two years be­fore the elec­tion: In 2016, there were 69 men­tions, in 2008 just 31, and in 2000 only four.

Add it all up from the month be­fore the pre­ced­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion through March of the midterm year (the same point we’re at now), and the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race made it on the air al­most twice as fre­quently as the 2008 race, and nearly eight times as of­ten as the 2000 race. (To be fair, cable news was still re­l­at­ively young in 2000.)

To try to get bey­ond the pro­lif­er­a­tion of new me­dia out­lets or eye­ball-chas­ing cable news pro­du­cers, we nar­rowed in on just the four largest na­tion­al news­pa­pers: The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Wall Street Journ­al, and USA Today. The pat­tern holds, with more than double the early cov­er­age of 2016 com­pared with 2008; about the same factor for 2000; and five times the early cov­er­age of 1988.

The fur­ther back you go, the less early cov­er­age you get.

“Not too many dec­ades ago, spec­u­la­tion about the nom­in­ees was thought to be pre­ma­ture even in Janu­ary of the elec­tion year,” says Robert Erikson, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Columbia Uni­versity who wrote a book about the chan­ging timelines of pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns.

It’s easy to blame the me­dia for be­com­ing en­chanted by a far-off event and early polling that’s proven to be pretty worth­less as an elect­or­al pre­dict­or. There’s a rich his­tory of journ­al­ists tak­ing them­selves to task for pre­ma­ture spec­u­la­tion.

Just a month after Bill Clin­ton won reelec­tion, Weekly Stand­ard writer An­drew Fer­guson grumbled on a CNN seg­ment about the 2000 elec­tion that “we should all be taken out and shot for dis­cuss­ing pres­id­en­tial polit­ics this early.” But he ad­ded an im­port­ant co­rol­lary that is even truer today than it was then: “The thing is, you can’t help it be­cause the can­did­ates them­selves are already out there rais­ing money, try­ing to put staffs to­geth­er and so, they’re mak­ing us talk about it.”

In­deed, the rules of the game — and es­pe­cially cam­paign fin­ance — have changed so much that can­did­ates can’t sit on the side­lines the way they once could, so re­port­ers pay at­ten­tion.

Ron Brown, chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee in the early 1990s, once pushed back against CNN host Bern­ard Shaw’s as­ser­tion that his party was con­ced­ing the 1992 elec­tion to George H.W. Bush. “I’m per­fectly pleased with the situ­ation. And I’m glad there are no can­did­ates out there now. I think the pub­lic can’t tol­er­ate a three-year cam­paign. I think can­did­ates get stale, the pub­lic gets bored, people make un­ne­ces­sary mis­takes,” he said.

That was Ju­ly 1990. If Brown’s com­ments were ap­plied to the 2016 elec­tion cycle, he would be speak­ing four months from now and he would sound wildly out of touch. His com­ments, for in­stance, would have come a full 18 months after a couple of Hil­lary Clin­ton su­per­fans formed Ready for Hil­lary, the grass­roots su­per PAC build­ing sup­port for a po­ten­tial Clin­ton can­did­acy. And it would be sev­en months after some of the biggest donors and best strategists in the Demo­crat­ic Party or­gan­ized them­selves in a shad­ow cam­paign-in-wait­ing.

“The me­dia cov­er­age is ab­so­lutely war­ran­ted,” says Licht­man, the his­tor­i­an. “The can­did­ates are talk­ing to donors. They’re out in Iowa. They’re es­tab­lish­ing their brands.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t prob­lems with the ever-earli­er cam­paign. Can­did­ates must run longer and longer to get­ting elec­ted; those who can’t raise large sums of money are ex­cluded; and po­lar­iz­a­tion, already at re­cord highs, might only be re­in­forced by the con­stant horse race.

Christ­mas, it turns out, does not ac­tu­ally come earli­er every year (it just sneaks up on you). Pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, on the oth­er hand, do start earli­er every four years, just as they cost more. Soon, per­haps, the concept of a cam­paign “start” will seem for­eign, as it will all be one ouroboros of nev­er-end­ing fun­drais­ing and at­tacks — with none of the sales Black Fri­day provides.

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