Are long presidential campaigns good or bad?
Every one of the 40 or so presidential appearances I have seen up close begins like this: The candidate thanks local volunteers, then boasts about how early they started coming to that splendid early primary state.
The numbers are high. For example, as of this week Donald Trump has done New Hampshire events 35 times, Ben Carson 32, Jeb Bush 94, Chris Christie 156, Bernie Sanders 78 times, Hillary Clinton 70, and Martin O’Malley 85 times.
Is this totally crazy — a two-year campaign?
Having seen it up close I have decided that it isn't crazy. It actually serves a good purpose.
A long campaign gives voters time to see how candidates handle the unexpected, and it gives disagreements time to brew. At first, candidate speeches are primarily applause machines, cranking out phrases that audiences want to hear. The Democratic candidates' speeches differ in tone (Bernie fearless and forthright, Hillary earnest and battle-scarred) but thanks to the long campaign, differences emerged. Back in December their policy planks sounded eerily alike: assist the middle class, affordable college, refinance college loans, protect Social Security and Medicare, end tax loopholes for billionaires. But the long campaign gave them time to get under each others’ skin. Now it is all about the differences between them: what kind of health care reform, what about gun manufacturers' liability, who better to rein in Wall Street?
Same thing with the Republicans. Again, the tone has always differed — Trump and Christie blunt, Bush and Kasich calm but frustrated, Carly Fiorino and Marco Rubio eloquent and polished, Carson quiet. Back in December the message and applause lines were the same: Obama is weak, the economy is terrible, unemployment is high, cut personal and corporate taxes, increase the military, defund Planned Parenthood, end same-sex marriage. Now they are fighting over points of policy: Do we support Assad to stop ISIS or fight them both? Do we ban citizenship for Latin American immigrants forever, or is a 10- or 20-year wait enough? It took awhile to move from platitudes to policy.
But most useful is seeing how candidates handle events as they come up. Who calls for stopping world trade when there are two American cases of ebola? Whose staff quits suddenly and says their candidate is unteachable? When there's a bomb in Paris, who says to pause on considering taking new refugees, who says to stop refugees outright, who says to give them a religious test, who says to implement a government registry of all American Muslims? Does anyone speak out about the Harney County occupation?
Long campaigns are a great equalizer, and give the little guy a fighting chance to make a mark. A candidate needs few enough votes to be a "winner" in New Hampshire that he or she can win through force of energy, ideas with appeal, and time. McCain did, in 2008. A Republican candidate will need about 25,000 votes to get 10 percent of the Republican vote in 2016, and any candidate who gets 10 percent will be declared a top contender and move on to South Carolina with real momentum. For reference, Colleen Roberts got 40,000 votes in her successful Jackson County commissioner race. Heck, clear back in 1980 I got 27,000 votes when I was elected county commissioner, and you bet I walked door-to-door and stood in front of post offices to meet people. Money and media help, but a candidate with a message can meet and share that message with enough people to win the election.
Real democracy in the form of face-to-face meetings, answering questions, handshakes and photo "selfies" is happening right now in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. It is nice to have a billionaire backer, but even without one, a candidate can influence the 25,000 people they need to meet to come out of New Hampshire a credible candidate.
Long campaigns give candidates a chance to make their case. Even the candidates who have dropped out had their shot: Rick Perry held 45 events in New Hampshire, Scott Walker 32, Bobby Jindal 22, Chafee 34. They had their shot. That is all anyone can ask for.
Peter Sage of Medford is a former Jackson County commissioner and a retired financial adviser who has been traveling to early primary states. Read his blog at www.peterwsage.blogspot.com.