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CREDIT: Danny Johnston/AP Images (Trump); Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (Clinton); J. Countess/Getty Images (Carson); Joe Raedle/Getty Images (Sanders); Win McNamee/Getty Images (Rubio)

Campaign Marathon

It already feels like the presidential election has been going on forever. And there’s still almost a year until we cross the finish line.

By the time Election Day rolls around in November 2016, the presidential hopefuls will probably have been out on the campaign trail for more than two years. They’ll have spent that time holding rallies, taking part in debates, raising money, and doing anything else they can to promote their candidacies. Compared to most of the world, America’s presidential election system is unusually long—and, it seems, getting longer every four years. Why is that? Here’s how we ended up with what seem like endless elections.

Why does it take Americans so long?

Many other countries manage to elect their leaders in just a few weeks. The main reason it takes us so much longer is that we spend so much time just deciding which Democratic and Republican candidates will be on the ballot. Each party’s presidential contender is chosen in a series of state-by-state primaries and caucuses. These contests typically begin in February of an election year and run through June (see graphic, below).

In a primary, voters head to polling stations to cast secret ballots. In a caucus, people gather in schools, churches, and private homes to discuss the candidates and publicly make their choices, sometimes with a show of hands. In both cases, voters elect delegates who pledge to support candidates at party conventions in the summer. That’s where each party’s nominee is officially selected. Nearly four months later—in November—voters cast ballots in the general election.

Other countries skip all the fuss. For example, in the U.K., where party leaders select the nominees, the entire election can take as little as 38 days. And Canada just selected a new prime minister in 78 days, their longest election since 1872.

Has the process gotten longer in recent years?

Yes. That’s because the earlier candidates hit the campaign trail, the better their chances of building support in early-voting states. Winning those early races—especially the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary—can propel hopefuls to victories in other states. Candidates who do poorly in the early contests often quickly drop out of the race.

The first declared candidate of 2016—Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas—officially kicked off his campaign last March, nearly a year before the first primary and caucuses. At least 16 Republicans and five Democrats have followed. (As of October, two Republicans and two Democrats had already dropped out of the race.)

And the reality is that almost all the 2016 contenders were unofficially campaigning long before they formally announced their candidacies.

Does money play a role in lengthening the campaigns?

A big role: Entering the race far in advance gives candidates more time to raise money. Attracting donations early on ensures that candidates will have enough cash to build a successful campaign, says Christopher Arterton, professor of political management at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. 

“It takes an enormous amount of money to run for president,” he says, so candidates need to start courting donors as soon as possible.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling resulted in a huge increase in political spending. The Court said that the government can’t restrict the amount of money that corporations or unions give political candidates. (Individuals are still limited to giving $2,700 to any one candidate in a single election.) 

In 2012, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney each spent more than $1 billion. (In 2000, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush spent $343 million combined.) Much of that money went toward TV, radio, and online ads in key swing states, with Ohio and Florida at the top of the list. (A swing state is one that doesn’t consistently vote Democratic or Republican; its support can “swing” to either party.)

Is there a silver lining?

Some political scientists say there are benefits to the American system of long, drawn-out elections. 

“It gives us an opportunity to weigh information on a daily basis and change our minds,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If you had a British system with a five-week election, it means that everything is concentrated and it’s a lot easier to make a mistake. We get the luxury of time and reconsideration.”

By and large, Americans are used to long election cycles, and while there’s plenty of debate about them, the system is unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, don’t be surprised if on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the next president is elected, some reporters—and politicians—are already looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election. 

Timeline to the Election

    • November 7, 2012

      The day after President Barack Obama wins a second term, the press begins talking about who will run in 2016.

    • March 23, 2015

      Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, becomes the first candidate to officially enter the race.

    • April 12, 2015

      Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the first Democrat to declare her candidacy.

    • April 13, 2015

      Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida joins Snapchat. He’s one of several candidates using the app to attract young voters.

    • May 15, 2015

      A Gallup poll shows that the economy is the issue that matters most to voters in choosing the next president.

    • July 31, 2015

      Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, reports raising $120 million, more than any other candidate at that point.

    • August 6, 2015

      Thanks to controversial comments by Donald Trump, 24 million people tune in to the first Republican debate. It’s the highest-rated primary debate in TV history.

    • October 13, 2015

      The first of six Democratic debates is largely a sparring match between the two front-runners, Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

    • February 1, 2016

      The first caucuses will take place in Iowa.

    • February 9, 2016

      The first primary will be held in New Hampshire.

    • March 1, 2016

      Thirteen states, including many in the South, will hold primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

    • July 18-21, 2016

      Cleveland, Ohio, will host the Republican National Convention.

    • July 25-28, 2016

      The Democratic National Convention will be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    • September/October 2016

      The Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls—and possibly third-party candidates—will take part in three televised debates.

    • November 8, 2016


    • January 20, 2017

      The 45th U.S. president will be inaugurated on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in ashington, D.C.

Additional reporting by Patricia Smith.

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