Joe Biden has been president for only 72 days. The 2024 election is more than three and a half years away. Normal Americans — a category that excludes insatiable political junkies — have no desire this far out to see or hear from wannabe presidential candidates. It is way too soon to be inundated by their speeches and promises, their press releases and attack ads: too soon for everything in American life to start getting filtered through the partisan lens of a fight for the White House. We emerged from a grueling presidential campaign only a few months ago. The last thing most of us want is the arrival of the next one.
Too bad. It’s already underway.
At Friday’s meeting of the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale, Iowa, the guest of honor was former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who calls himself a “strong maybe” on running for president. As C-SPAN’s cameras rolled, Pompeo commented on foreign policy, criticized “radical woke-leftism,” took questions from the audience — and mentioned that his wife is from Iowa City.
Senator Rick Scott of Florida, meanwhile, another Republican presidential prospect, is due in Cedar Rapids Thursday evening for a state party reception. On April 15, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina flies to Davenport for a third GOP event.
The 2024 presidential hopefuls aren’t looking only to Iowa. Pompeo will join a fund-raiser next week in New Hampshire. So will Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was in the Granite State in January and promised to return “very, very soon.” The Protect Freedom PAC, a group affiliated with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, recently sent mailers to Republican lawmakers in New Hampshire, declaring that “it’s time to stop election fraud” — prominently featuring Paul’s image.
Surveying these pre-primary presidential rumblings, Republican consultant Jim Merrill remarked happily: “It’s never too early for the next presidential primary in New Hampshire or Iowa.”
Oh, yes it is.
In most modern democracies, national election campaigns are conducted over the course of a few weeks or months. Only in the United States do presidential election seasons drag on and on and on.
“The present length of presidential campaigns is a nightmarish feature of our election system,” wrote political scientist Malcolm Moos in The New York Times — in 1964. His essay “Is the Long Campaign Necessary?” appeared in an era when presidential campaigning generally got underway 11 or 12 months before Election Day. Today, the trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue begins far earlier. Scarcely have the votes been counted in one presidential election than candidates dreaming of winning the next election begin hiring advance teams and lining up speaking engagements. And, overwhelmingly, their attention is concentrated on Iowa and New Hampshire, the two “first-in-the-nation” states.
The longer presidential campaigns stretch, the more exhausting and dispiriting voters find them. Each quadrennium generates new think-pieces on how America’s elections could be shortened. Yet so long as Iowa and New Hampshire maintain their grip on the nation’s first caucus and primary, each crop of candidates will be tempted to start campaigning even earlier than their predecessors.
There’s a solution: Break the Iowa/New Hampshire duopoly.
No, don’t end the tradition of subjecting presidential hopefuls to the rigors of “retail” campaigning in smaller states, which has proved to be a valuable discipline. Instead, reform that tradition by means of two key changes. First, withdraw the privilege of going automatically first from Iowa and New Hampshire and award it every four years to two small states selected by lottery: Delaware and South Carolina one cycle, say, or Kentucky and Rhode Island the next. Second — and crucially — don’t designate each new pair of lead-off battlegrounds until New Year’s Day of the presidential election year.
If no one knew in advance which states would get the coveted first-in-the-nation status, presidential candidates would no longer have any incentive to swarm into those states long before any votes are cast. Each election, two new “retail” states would enjoy a turn in the spotlight and a bout of intensive campaigning, but it would be a bout of a few reasonable months, not a years-long slog.
Would-be presidents wouldn’t stop busying themselves with the things ambitious politicians do: raising money, seeking publicity, giving speeches. But they might also spend more time focusing on the jobs they have. The all-consuming obsession with Iowa and New Hampshire would become a thing of the past. Presidential campaigns could shrink to a more humane length. And Americans could finally (re)discover what their counterparts in other democracies have long known: Political campaigns are better when they don’t go on forever.