The increase in campaign spending and the ensuing dependency on campaign contributions have been named the “permanent campaign,” by certain scholars. The concept of the Permanent Campaign explains the state of modern campaign financing. It describes how politicians constantly (or permanently) need to raise funds for their next reelection, which means that they are campaigning, during the time they are supposed to be serving the public. The term permanent campaign was described by Patrick H. Caddel, a pollster who worked for several Democratic presidential candidates, including Jimmy Carter, and it was later coined by a journalist. In the following, this concept will be examined along with its effect on American politics and elections.
The chart above illustrates the evolution of the Permanent Campaign. Its beginning was during the 1970s and 80s when polling and TV ads became commonly used. Polling became so precise that it could be used for campaign purposes and TV so widespread used that it became a very effective way to reach the voters. However, the use of polls and TV ads did not only make campaign more issue based, since candidates could get knowledge on the exact issues his or her key voters cared about, but the campaigns also became more expensive. This led to increased spending which forced candidates to enter an “arms race” (with campaign funds) to increase their chances of winning. In other words, the increase in spending turned into an increase in demand. In turn, this meant that even newly elected politicians had to start spending time on raising money for their reelection, almost immediately. To meet this increasing demand, lobbyists and their clients’ ”soft money” began to supply the candidates by increasing the contributions to the political campaigns. In the end, the result is the Permanent Campaign, which means that politicians spend less time governing as well as making and debating policies and instead spend more time raising funds for reelection. Furthermore, an even more serious potential consequent of this is that candidates start worrying more about the interests of their contributors and less about the public’s interests.
To show how important the new technology and pollster became, the case of how former President Bill Clinton chose his vacation is a prime example. By the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was in office, pollsters were not only used to determine which issues or demographic groups to focus a campaign on. This became evident, when the Clintons used polls to decide where to go on vacation, trying to figure out if one spot would be too elitist or another spot too lowbrow for the President and his family to visit. Suddenly, no decision was too small to resolve without taking a poll. In other words, a candidate’s personal choices are in many cases second to what the polls dictate, on everything from vacation spots to political issues and policymaking.
Naturally, Clinton is not the only president who seemed to have been affected by the Permanent Campaign; George W. Bush even received criticism for having a “permanent campaign mentality,” by a former member of his White House staff. Bush’ policy decisions were heavily affected by politics and the goal of being reelected. However, a study on the effects of the Permanent Campaign suggests that the presidency might not be as affected by it, as Congress appears to be. It is mainly in the year of re-election that a president seems to be thoroughly affected by campaigning, according to the study. Hence, the presidency is less influenced by the Permanent Campaign culture. Arguably, one of the main reasons for this is that the President serves four-year terms, while the 435 members of the House of Representatives only serve 2-year terms. However, it should be noted that the 100 Senators, which do represent a smaller part of Congress, are elected for 6 years at a time. Furthermore, the principal reason as to why the Presidency is less affected by the Permanent Campaign is that while the President can only get reelected once, members of Congress can get reelected an unlimited number of times. This means that when the President is in his or her second term there are no more elections, whereas members of Congress will always have an election on the horizon unless he or she is retiring. Thus, the effects of the Permanent Campaign can more easily influence Congress, as most of its members will permanently need to think about raising funds for an upcoming re-election.
Candidates are forced to spend more and more to increases their chances of electoral success. On top of this, new technology that is more expensive has become obligatory. Hence, a culture of almost permanent campaigning has arisen in American politics and, especially, in the legislative branch, Congress. The effects of this Permanent Campaign represents a democratic problem, since, not only does it mean that the elected representatives of the people spend more time on fundraising and political campaigning and less time on policy making and governing. It also means that the interests of those, who can contribute the most to a candidate, might become more important for the politicians than the interests of the people. When the members of Congress become entangled in a permanent campaign culture, they, naturally, become dependent on large campaign contributions, which mostly come from the lobbyists’ wealthy clients. This dependency would seem to be damaging for the American political system and democracy.
- Bumiller, E. (2008, May 28). In Ex-Spokesman’s Book, Harsh Words for Bush. The New York Times.
- Doherty, B. J. (2007). “Elections”: The Politics of the Permanent Campaign: Presidential Travel and the Electoral College, 1977-2004. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, Shadows of Democracy in Presidential Rhetoric (Dec., 2007), pp. 749-773.
- Galston, W. A. (2014, October 28). The “Permanent Campaign” – Perpetual Paralysis. The Wall Street Journal.
- Kaiser, R. G. (2010). So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. The United States: Vintage Books.
- Klein, J. (2005, October 30). The Perils of the Permanent Campaign. Time Magazine.
- Roberts, J. (2004, March 18). Vacation Politics. CBS News.