Covering past presidential elections was fun, insightful and even inspiring. A candidate had to put themselves in front of real people, not real cameras, in order to gain traction. They took questions from people who are trying to make ends meet or raise a child alone, or worry about their child serving abroad – not from a journalist. The candidates were able to take the actual pulse of the American electorate instead of reading it from the latest poll. I followed Gov. George W. Bush just months before the primary in 2000. He played soccer in a gym in New Hampshire with just a handful of press and maybe two dozen kids and their parents. I was with Howard Dean in the middle of Iowa where a very small contingent of press (six people), followed him to a VFW hall, then to a tiny bookstore and even to a college campus for some real meet and greet. This took place only three months before the Iowa primary. The curtain is just being raised on Campaign 2008 and the campaign events are staged like rock concerts, only the musician is picking up the tab.
The 2008 elections are already a huge series of events that only the large well-financed campaigns can afford to play. Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, had to drop out of the race last week. The reason? Money. He had raised just about one million dollars. Clinton, McCain, Giuliani or Obama can take in that much in a night. There was a time when scrappers like Vilsack could win. You didn't need to be a best selling author, former first lady, or high profile senator or public official to gain traction. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are two names that come to mind. They were relatively obscure governors.
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Today, a candidate cannot afford to spend time in one state. The election primary and caucus season this year has changed. America got tired of Iowa and New Hampshire picking our presidents. The rational made sense at the time. Why should two mainly white, small states pick the next president of the United States? Why should they be from the Northeast and the Midwest? What about the South and the West? I can't say that I disagree. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, California, and Florida will all take place within a few months, or in some cases days of each other. The problem is that this new plan of front loading makes it impossible for a candidate to do anything other than quick trips in the state, so there will be little if any quality time with the electorate.
The voters will have to rely on what is fed to them via large staged events and television advertising to make their decision about the candidates.The candidates, who cannot afford to stage large events or pay for television, will be forced out. It is unlikely that Bill Clinton could have lasted if he were running for president in '08.
I don't think there is any way at this point to bring back the old days of hitting every school and VFW hall in small town America. But I do think it is possible to change the rules so people who don't have a ''senatorial'' campaign war chest of over $20 million dollars to spend, can get and stay in the game. Britain and Canada have election time limits. They are less than three months. Television time is expensive but since the time is so short during election season even a minority candidate can afford to get in the race.
Shortening what now seems like a perpetual campaign would mean that candidates who are already holding office and being paid with our tax dollars, are actually at work for us instead of themselves. Obama, Clinton, McCain, Dodd, Brownback, Kucinich, Biden all serve in the Senate or House. Gov. Richardson is still a sitting governor. The next 22 months of what they were elected to do is going to be spent with their focus on their own political aspirations versus the interests of their constituencies. And they're even more narcissistic than I thought if they think that somehow their running for president is serving the people who elected them – perhaps,if one of the dozen were to be elected president, but the rest are just free loading on the American taxpayer. Some candidates in the past (Gov. George W. Bush) gave back their salary while they were running and that is admirable, but they were still elected to do a job not seek the next one.
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The 2008 election is a mirror image of what is wrong in this country: a few people making the rules, not enough access to government, big money guiding the political process and those at the top doing little more than looking for the next big job. We have to change the election process before it forever changes us as a country and a people. Federal election laws need to limit electioneering so this madness stops and politicians work for us, not themselves.