Ah, it’s spring; the flowers are out, the sunshine pokes through the clouds and the smell of democracy is in the air. No, I am not talking about the Ghanaian or Philippine general elections, which are indeed taking place this year, or the whooping 8 elections and 1 referendum taking place in the United Kingdom. I am of course talking of star-spangled democracy with a capital D – the 58th United States presidential election.

As discussion of the presidential candidates heats up in the media, the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking this campaign has been going on for years. In fact, much has been written about the perceived length and strain of the presidential campaign, with many commentators labelling it as ‘absurd’.

This piqued my interest and made me wonder if the US election race is truly an interminable soporific, or whether it could be attributable to perception alone. After all, the US is a world leader in most international matters, and the election of the president is the high point of the political calendar, so extensive news coverage is to be expected.

To find out, we will need to compare the length of the US election to equivalent elections in other countries. I have chosen to do this with the other 33 OECD nations, the rich-world club of industrialised economies that are most similar to the US in terms of economic prosperity and demographic makeup.

Now, defining an election campaign is a tricky business. Some countries like Canada and Australia limit the duration of a political campaign by law, but most don’t. Others like Slovakia limit the funds available to each party for campaigning, while others have free-for-alls. Ultimately, we are interested in the number of days viable candidates do spend campaigning for their election in a major race in a given OECD country; be it general, presidential or parliamentary election.

We will therefore have to make some rules. When no legal limit is imposed, we will take the number of days between the first announcement of a major candidacy (so no Monster Raving Loony Party) and voting day. This works well for most countries except for the Scandinavian nations, where candidates typically don’t launch their campaign individually, but rather their party does. In such cases, we will take the last date for valid submission of candidacy as the starting point, and voting day as the end. In all cases, when legal limits are not present, we will use the last major election as indicative.

The United States is, unsurprisingly, an oddball case here. We can divide the US presidential campaign into two halves. First, the time between a major candidate announcing their intention to run for office and the party national convention, can be considered the first leg of the race. Following the convention, each party selects a candidate and the second leg goes from nomination to election day. A few other countries conduct this out-of-season political campaigning, most notably Italy, so we have included those as well.

For the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton was the first major candidate to pronounce herself on 12th April 2015 towards the Democratic convention in late July 2016. The race then goes on until Election Day on the 8th November. How does that compare to the other OECD nations?

CampaignDurationBy a wide margin, the United States remains the undisputed leader of absurdly long election races. South Korea and Italy are notable outliers, both countries that engage in similar pre-campaign campaigning; but at a mere 241 and 190 campaign days in their last electoral cycles, they are dwarfed by the gigantic 576 days of US presidential campaigning. At the other end of the scale, Japan imposes a restrictive maximum of 12 days of political campaigning, with heavy fines for any infractions inching over the two-week line.

Regulating campaign time is a comparably crude method by which countries limit political opinion making. Regulating party financing is arguably a much more effective way of doing this, and much has been written about the successes and failures of financial approaches. Alas, the US election remains, as of now, a wide field of possibilities for financial backing of political campaigns. And while that continues to be the case, we are likely to continue enjoying the marathon races that make up the US presidential election.

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While researching this article, I discovered the curious practise of electoral silence, where countries impose a complete ban on political advertising or campaigning on the day, or the day immediately before, an election. These range from a reasonable 24-hour ban in Bulgaria, to the ludicrous 15-day ban on polling in Italy. In Spain, this day preceding an election is delightfully called “reflection day”. Perhaps we should all reflect on that.

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