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Can This Experiment Be Retired?

With two weeks to go before the election, it is startling to consider this fact: the first Republican and Democratic primary debates took place within a week of each other…seventeen months ago. And by the time those debates had taken place, at least six candidates — Obama, Hillary, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and John McCain — had already been conducting full-bore campaigns, complete with large staffs, for nearly five months.

Thus, by the time the final vote is cast on November 5, the campaign to win that vote will have gone on, at full gallop, for 22 months. I’m not talking about the old-time permanent campaign, when people had private meetings seeking to secure high-level state support and made frequent trips to New Hampshire and Iowa. I mean these were fully functioning, fully developed campaigns, spending millions of dollars a month. And for what?

That’s the key question. Obama felt the need to declare his candidacy in February 2007 so that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have the field entirely to herself. But his campaign’s key brilliant insight — to go after the delegate rich caucuses because Hillary, inexplicably, wasn’t — would have worked if he had started six months or more later, precisely because Hillary wasn’t focusing on them. How much money did he waste? Clearly, not enough to matter; but certainly the first nine months of 2007 were a wash for both of them.

And on the Republican side? Romney and Giuliani might just as well have lit a match to the combined $140 million they spent in 2007, for all the good it did them.

Why did it all start so early — when, for example, Bill Clinton didn’t have a single paid staffer until September 1991?

Simple. Everybody was feeding the beasts. There was the media beast, eager for an early race. There was the Washington beast, that astonishingly parochial creature, always ready to announce some candidate is dead in the water because that candidate didn’t do exactly what Washington Beast Leader #3 wanted him to do at exactly the moment Leader #3 thought it needed to be done.

There was the Ideologue Beast, which wanted to get everybody on record as early as possible on checklist issues — abortion, Iraq, Kelo (look it up), card check, NAFTA, CAFTA, and any other AFTA you could name.

There was the campaign-industry beast, which always insists it’s one minute before midnight and unless you line up that assistant chairman of the New Hampshire Maple Syrup Lincoln Day Dinner, someone else will take him and you’ll never get the prime position at the pancake breakfast two weeks before the vote.

The campaign-industry beast cannot be underestimated here. Fundraisers want to fundraise. Pollsters want to poll. Media people want to make commercials (and YouTubes). They want to play, and they want to be paid as early as possible, for obvious reasons.

I think it’s fair to say that the candidates got suckered, a little bit. Obviously, on the Democratic side, the unprecedented amounts of money and media attention and the sheer length of the two-person race ended up generating an astounding number of primary votes (38 million) and perhaps creating the momentum that will carry Obama over the threshold on November 5. But it’s also far from clear that he needed it, exactly; unless he receives a vastly greater number of votes than John Kerry’s 59 million, it will probably be fair to say that he got the Democratic votes he could have expected in any case and would have gotten them in any case.

On the Republican side, the year 2007 apparently existed primarily to create a crisis for John McCain that he was then able to resolve. Everything else we wrote about that year — Rudy’s popularity on the stump that faded to nothing, the potential meaning of a Fred Thompson run that came to mean nothing, Mitt Romney’s embrace of conservatism rather than technocratic centrism, Mike Huckabee’s Iowa straw poll surge, etc. etc. — was all sound and fury signifying nothing.

Perhaps candidates will be wiser in 2012 and 2016 and not allow themselves to play this game again. On the other hand, it’s very hard to resist it once it has happened.