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Isn't the Election Next Year?

The 2008 presidential election is more than a year away, but the campaign—and the debate over the issues facing America—are already in full swing.

By Patricia Smith

The calendar still reads 2007, and we're still more than four months away from the first primary—not to mention more than a year away from the actual 2008 election. But you'd never know it from the time and space devoted to the campaign in the media, by bloggers, and by late-night TV comedians.

America's process for nominating candidates and electing a President is always long (especially compared with that of countries with parliamentary systems, like Britain and Germany, which can get through the entire process in a couple of months). This time, however, everything is happening even earlier, and what's more, the voters seem to be paying attention. A recent poll found that substantially more Americans ages 17 to 29 are following the presidential race than four years ago.

"The country is more interested in politics than it's been in a long time," says E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution.

There are a variety of reasons for the earlier-than-usual hype surrounding the 2008 presidential election: Open and very competitive races for the nomination in both the Republican and Democratic parties; several high-profile "rock-star" candidates; dissatisfaction with President Bush and the war in Iraq; and a new compressed primary schedule that means more than half of the states will have held their primaries or caucuses by February 5, months earlier than usual.

The 2008 election will be the first time since 1928 that there is no sitting President or Vice President running on either side. The 22nd Amendment prohibits President Bush from seeking a third term, and Vice President Cheney is not running for President, as Vice Presidents usually do. As of early summer, there were eight declared Democratic candidates and 10 declared Republicans. With no clear front-runner in either party, the intense competition is generating additional public interest.

Then there's the issue of who the candidates are, says Michael Hagen of Temple University.

"John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama—they're celebrities in their own right and they would be even if they weren't running," he says.

Bush & Iraq

This early focus on the election is also being driven by the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with President Bush.

"President Bush is so low in the polls that there is an enormous hunger to replace him on the Democratic side, but you're even seeing on the Republican side a desire to move on," says Dionne.

President Bush's approval ratings are near the lowest point of his more than six years in office. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in May, 63 percent of Americans disapprove of the President's overall job performance. More than 75 percent say things are going badly in Iraq, and 72 percent say the country is on the wrong track.

But the most concrete change spurring the early interest in the race is the new, front-loaded primary calendar. As of now, 22 states are holding their primaries or caucuses on February 5 or are considering doing so. And by that date, five other states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida—will have already voted (see map below).

The process for nominating presidential candidates begins with a series of state-by-state primaries and caucuses to choose delegates to party conventions next summer, where each party's candidate is officially nominated. (In recent years, nominees have accumulated enough delegates to clinch the nomination months before the conventions.)

More Sway For Big States

The idea behind moving up the primary dates in several large influential states like Florida and California was that it would shift influence away from Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that have very small and homogenous populations that don't reflect the demographics of the country.

"Moving our presidential primary means California will have the influence it deserves when it comes to choosing the next presidential candidates," says California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Traditionally, large states like California and New York have held their primaries as late as June—often after the nominees were decided.

"It used to be much more leisurely," says Lee Edwards, a presidential scholar at the Heritage Foundation. For candidates, the impact is huge. "They've got to raise staggering sums of money very early in order to campaign in all these states at once," he says.

The new schedule also presents a logistical challenge: Since candidates can't be in 22 states at once, they may have to skip campaigning in some states to focus on others.

Andrew Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, says the emphasis on bigger states is hurting the quality of the early campaigning.

New Hampshire and Iowa may not be representative of the rest of the country, Smith says, but they're small enough that voters can meet candidates in person in uncontrolled environments; that's much less likely in big states where TV ads are the way most voters "meet" candidates. It also makes it harder for lesser-known candidates to emerge since they need to raise so much money early on in order to be viable candidates.

Good For Democracy?

The conventional wisdom is that the new schedule makes it more likely that both the Democratic and Republican nominees will be decided almost nine months before the November election.

"It means that the most important decision—who the candidates will be—will be made in February 2008, before most Americans even tune in," says Stephen Hess, a professor of public affairs at George Washington University.

No one knows what the effect of this extra-long campaign will be. Perhaps it will give voters a better chance to get to know the candidates. Or maybe they'll tire of the Democratic and Republican nominees after a couple of months, presenting opportunities for possible third-party candidates like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "The big question is: Is this good for American democracy?" says Edwards. On that, the jury remains out.

Selecting Nominees
Dates of Primaries & Caucuses