Last week, Conservative Party leader David Cameron ousted Gordon Brown as prime minister of the United Kingdom. On Tuesday, Brown resigned his post and Cameron moved to No. 10 Downing St. The campaign lasted one month and virtually nothing was spent by either campaign, compared with U.S. standards.
The national election in the U.K. should be a wake-up call to Americans.
Campaign spending in this country is out of control.
In the 2008 presidential race, the candidates spent a total of $1.7 billion, double what was spent in the 2004 race. In the U.K. election, a spending cap of 20 million pounds, about $33 million, was imposed on each of the major parties. Of course, campaigns there are less expensive partly because of a ban on paid radio and TV advertising or any ads on matters of "political or industrial controversy."
But the major difference between elections in the two countries is the duration of the campaigns. On April 6, then-Prime Minister Brown announced that the national election would be May 6. Although some campaigning and positioning of candidates obviously took place prior to April 6, the heart of the campaign took place in a compressed, intensive time frame. One month is surely enough time to size up the candidates.
The campaigning of presidential candidates here officially starts in January of the election year with a series of primaries and caucuses, leaving 10 months to Election Day. In reality, candidates position themselves at least two years earlier with exploratory committees, campaign fundraisers and book writing.
There is no reason why we can't shorten the cycle to a more realistic and tolerable length. Maybe not one month like the Brits, but certainly no more than six.
How long does it take for candidates to communicate their positions on issues? How long does it take for the electorate to get to know the candidates, their qualifications and their election platform? Are voters from the U.K. that much smarter than Americans that they need so little time? Are the candidates in the U.K. so succinct and articulate in the expression of their positions that they need only one month to run an effective campaign? Do the Brits go to the polls with inferior information? Are we better informed voters?
Obviously no. One reason for the mounting expense of our elections is the multitude of stakeholders in the process campaign advisers, media strategists, political advisers, and pundits and commentators.
Moreover, for the mainstream media, print as well as broadcast, elections are a revenue stream. For example, TV and radio stations in so-called battleground states in the 2008 presidential primaries reported record revenue based on an unanticipated avalanche of last-minute advertising buys by the candidates. Surely, they will fight fiercely to protect these windfall revenue opportunities.
Despite the obvious lessons we could learn from the U.K., the outrageous expense and duration of our elections is unlikely to change. There is simply too much money at stake, and too many stakeholders stirring the pot, for us to ever wean our political system from the tradition of increasingly expensive and hopelessly endless election campaigns.
Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer.