Today, 777 days ahead of the poll that will decide the next US president, Republican Fred Karger launched the first television advertisement of the 2012 campaign.
What Karger lacks in name recognition — just 175 followers on Twitter — he makes up with extremely early preparation, laying groundwork for the New Hampshire primary 18 months from now.
If this seems a bit premature, consider this elongated nomination process is standard in the US and could soon be coming to Australia under today’s proposal by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally for US-style primaries in current non-Labor seats.
Most Australians knew we were headed to the polls just 37 days ahead of last month’s federal election — more than enough time for every policy, pun and punch-up to be exhaustively examined. But with the exception of the Liberal candidate for Lindsay, almost every candidate had been selected behind closed doors, without much scrutiny, by a mere dozens of selectors or even just the parties’ national or state executive.
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American primaries differ from Australian party nomination procedures in that any eligible voter may register to participate in choosing one party’s candidates for office. With no party membership cost, most do. Some 42 million Americans opt-out of the primary process, registering as independents, dwarfed by more than 130 million voters who register for either Democratic or Republican primaries.
While some small districts still see local candidates nominated for office by just a few dozen voters, most involve large-scale campaigns involving television ads, billboards and town hall forums for months leading up the primary.
In heavily conservative or conservative districts, the traditional ‘safe seat’ — where the respective Republican or Democratic Party nominee is guaranteed to win office — the primary becomes the de facto election day. As a result, parties cannot treat safe seats as gifts for party hacks and apparatchiks.
For single issue candidates like Karger, the lengthy primaries process also allows airtime in the media, but often only if they start early enough. Once the Sarah Palins or Rudy Giulianis start their campaigns, newspaper column inches quickly fill leaving little space for the rest.
Karger joins Libertarian Party candidate R Lee Wrights as the only two to have created presidential exploratory committees thus far, the first step in seeking nomination. Many more will join once the November mid-term elections are over.
Karger has little chance of winning Republican nomination — his platform is human rights and gay equality — but by starting early he’ll get press attention to his causes and perhaps shame other Republican hopefuls into toning down their rhetoric. He may not win office, but he will have had a direct impact on campaign issues.
The 60-year-old political consultant launched his bid while standing in front of a banner reading ‘Fred Who?’, a fair cop when all eyes are on Palin as the presumptive candidate backed by the Tea Party movement. Karger may have been first, but there is little doubt the Tea Party’s anti-government message will dominate the issues for most, if not all, the next 777 days.