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Aug 08 2008

Changing the political calendar

(The series on the ethics of food will continue next week.)

If you are at all like me, you are probably already sick of the presidential election and simply want to get it over with. We are currently in that part of the political season where nothing of significance is happening and yet there is a lot of time to fill, so we have a relentless focus on trivialities and an endless obsession with polls, trying to make sense of their ups and downs in relation to news events.

Take for example the absurd fuss over tire pressure:

Then we have the nonsense about celebrities, triggered by this ad from the McCain camp suggesting that Obama was a frivolous airhead:

The only noteworthy thing to emerge from this latter non-issue is the Paris Hilton counter-ad poking fun at McCain. It cannot be a good sign for McCain that she is a better speaker than him.

While I enjoy silliness as much as the next person, these things indicate to me that the campaign has already gone on too long and the candidates have far too much time on their hands. It is time to change the American political calendar.

Here is my plan, for what it is worth, based on the belief that voters can be divided into two groups: those who decide early and those who decide at the last minute.

The early deciders are either those who follow politics closely and already have all the information they need to make a decision, or those who make their decision based on party affiliation, specific single-issues, or candidate characteristics that are known early. There is very little that could happen between now and the election to make these early deciders change their minds, though their level of enthusiasm for their candidate could wax and wane. For example, almost all the people I talk to have already decided, like me, who they are going to vote for and it is hard to see them switch.

The voters who decide at the last minute are either those who don’t care much about politics but have a vague sense of civic duty that they must vote and will go with their ‘gut’ when it comes time to pull the lever, or are simply chronic procrastinators who will wait until the last minute to find out what the candidates are all about. For such people, it does not matter whether they have another hour, week, month, or year to make their decision. They will do so at the last minute, whenever that minute is.

My theory about why the polls fluctuate during this time is not because people are changing their minds as a result of any news event (speculating about this is purely a game that keeps the pundits employed) but that this second group of voters gives more or less random answers to the question of who they are likely to vote for, coupled with sampling biases.

So why must we have this Sargasso Sea of dead time between when the nominees have been decided and the election held? What purpose is served by this other than requiring an enormous amount of money to raised and spent by the candidates on advertising, traveling around the country and the world, and for the media to follow them?

Here’s a much better calendar. The date of the election is fixed in the US constitution to be early November and cannot be changed. [Update: Jim Eastman has pointed out in the comments that this is incorrect, that the date is set by statute.] Similarly the idea of having primaries is a good one in that it gives the public at least some semblance of participation in the choice in the nominee, even if just barely, so it should be retained.

So why not schedule the primaries in the months of July, August, September, have the party conventions at the end of September or beginning of October, and then run an intensive presidential campaign for just three to four weeks (like other countries do) before the elections at the beginning of November?

All that this would require is for the two parties to agree to this primary and convention schedule. Since both would benefit equally by not wasting so much time, there seems to be no reason why it could not happen.

Of course, individual candidates could still start as early as they want to to lay the groundwork to run for office but at least we would not have to pay any attention until June or so and thus not be subjected to an interminably drawn out election schedule. Also, candidates and voters would be most involved in the summer months, allowing more students to be involved in the process without taking time off from school, and we would be spared the dreary spectacle of people trudging around in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire in the dead of winter.

POST SCRIPT: On not watching the Olympics

It seems like just yesterday that I was not watching the 2004 Olympics (wherever it was held) and now it is already time to ignore the current one, whose opening ceremonies are today.

I long ago got sick of the coverage, with its relentless commercials, the almost exclusive coverage of only the events that US athletes were taking part in, the jingoism, grandstanding, and flag-waving on display by athletes of all countries, the cheating, and the sappy biographical stories of athletes I had never heard of before and would never hear of again.

Promising that marquee events are ‘Just ahead’ when the announcers had no plans on showing it for at least an hour (to be filled with commercials), had to be one of the most annoying parts of the coverage.

Here are some suggestions to improve the Olympics and its coverage.

  1. Only play the Olympic anthem at all medal ceremonies, not the national anthem of the gold medal winner’s country. If the Olympics don’t have an anthem, use the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is short and bouncy and sounds anthem-like with all those tubas.
  2. Any athlete who indulges in excessive boasting or ‘I’m number 1′ finger-pointing or taunting of other athletes or in ostentatious flag waving victory laps after winning an event gets hit with a rubber chicken.
  3. Eliminate all events where the results are determined by judges scoring on ‘artistic merit’ or aesthetics. This means that gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving must go.
  4. Get rid of all the horse events. It seems like the horses are doing all the work at an event meant to showcase human athletic achievement. If horse events are to be included, then why not NASCAR?
  5. Get rid of beach volleyball. How did this casual summer pastime come to be in the Olympics? What next – a ‘dog catching a Frisbee’ event?

Thank you. End of rant.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Jim Eastman

    A quick technical correction. The Constitution doesn’t mandate that the general election be in early November. That date was implemented in 1845 under Title 3, Chapter 1 of the US Code.

  2. 2
    Greg

    Mano,
    “with its relentless commercials, the almost exclusive coverage …. the jingoism, grandstanding, and flag-waving on display”

    Are you talking about the olympic coverage or the election coverage? Seems like a good description of both.

  3. 3
    kural

    Mano,
    Re the Olympics there is no one who has done more, and risked life and limb, to expose the chicanery behind the facade, than the British journalist Andrew Jennings. He has been opening up the scandal ridden International Olympic Committee, FIFA, International Athletic Association, and other such groups for years. The drug infested games, the bribery involved when cities fall over themselves to host the games, the commandeering of public resources to satisfy hte vanity of some aristocrats running the games, can all be read in his books. Sport is great as long as the moneybags are kept in control, or else it simply becomes another Roman Gladiatorial contest, where human dignity is sacrificed to provide cheap thrills.

    http://www.transparencyinsport.org/

  4. 4
    Paul Jarc

    What purpose is served by this other than requiring an enormous amount of money to raised and spent by the candidates

    Isn’t that enough of a reason? The long campaign schedule keeps the candidates dependent on big donors, which is just how the donors like it. Selective pressure from the donors will weed out any candidates who try to push for a shorter schedule.

  5. 5
    James

    Hey, what do you have against beach volleyball? (Disclaimer: I’m an avid player). If you want displays of athleticism, it doesn’t get any more athletic than 2 people playing a traditionally indoor 6-person team sport outside in the heat and on a surface that is constantly shifting underneath their feet.

    Agree with your other 4 points though :)

  6. 6
    Valerie

    While I agree that the Olympic coverage on TV is horrid, the streaming web content on nbc’s site is amazing. They’ve got all but the major events live on web video. You get to see the full events without all the commercials (there’s only the occassional one when you switch events) and commentary (which is in text format that you can hide). Definitely the best way to watch the games.

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