As American voters unite today as a nation to elect their leaders, they can also begin to speak out about ways to improve the campaign system before the next election.
More than in the past, this campaign was too long (well over a year) and too expensive (about $3 billion). And despite all that, the number of undecided voters may have been at a record high in the final weeks.
Still, the campaign did produce a real choice in the presidential race. If pollsters are right, the vote may be the closest since at least 1968, perhaps 1960.
But the campaign also produced, as one former presidential campaign manager observes, "two centrist candidates equally acceptable and unacceptable to large numbers of the electorate."
The centrism was on purpose. Despite their sizable differences on many issues, Al Gore and George Bush tried to adopt bits and pieces of each other's positions in an attempt to woo as many voters as possible. This only muddied their distinctions, helping to raise "character" as a defining criterion.
Judging a candidate on his or her honesty and integrity is not bad; it's just that this election should have been more focused on how Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore would change the economy, social policies, world affairs, the Supreme Court, etc.
Their chase for middle-ground voters as well as the undecideds only pushed the candidates to increase advertising - and their need for money. If predictions are right, three to four times more money will have been spent on all federal campaigns in this election than in 1996.
No wonder, then, that a high percentage of people were rooting for Ralph Nader, as well as John McCain, whose main attraction was his call for campaign-finance reform. The new Congress should heed that popular sentiment and aim to reduce the amount of campaign money spent in the next election.
One big cause of longer campaigns and more money is the primary system. This year, they were heavily "front loaded" in February and early March as more states tried to hold theirs earlier to avoid losing political clout. A candidate had to start fundraising and glad-handing in early 1999 to win the first primaries.
The party conventions and the televised Gore-Bush debates were flawed, too, in not providing voters with much more information than a press conference would. And as much as it tried, the media didn't try hard enough to abandon the traditional horse-race coverage of this election.
That horse-race mentality wasn't helped by the plethora of polls, with their confusing mix of methodologies and partisanship. The polls were mainly used by politicians to massage their message and tinker with their tactics.
The one campaign element that's really new is the ability of the Internet to spread information (and disinformation) and organize support for candidates. Still, this medium may not be any better than the old ones at helping citizens sift out information from knowledge and facts from rumor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society