Is it too much, too soon? Is it illogical and unhealthy for democracy, something that will lead to public burnout and raise new financial bars for future candidates? Or is it simply a function of new media and the ultimate vindication for the strategy pioneered by Howard Dean in 2004?
'The current process is stupid'
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has his answer: "I think the current process of spending an entire year running in order to spend an entire year running in order to get sworn in in January 2009 is stupid," he has said in several recent speeches, blaming money-hungry consultants.
And while Mr. Gingrich is himself a potential candidate who's been coy about his own intentions, he's not the only one decrying the process. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, views the early fight with some disdain. "If you assigned the task of developing a political system to an insane asylum, this is what they would come up with," he said. "Of course people wear out. Other countries have a five-week campaign and Europeans tell us one reason for our low turnout is that politics 365 days a year is like background static, and people tune it out."
The consultants, of course, would beg to differ -- and they make a strong point. They see the fast start as simply reflecting earlier primary dates and how the internet has altered and democratized campaign marketing and fundraising. They suggest forgetting the past and figuring out how to best face the new marketing challenges.
The Dean effect
Joe Trippi, Mr. Dean's campaign manager and now head of Trippi & Associates, pointed out that a rudimentary internet effort allowed Sen. John McCain to enlist 40,000 supporters for his 2000 run. Four years later, the Dean campaign used the web to sign up 650,000 and raise $59 million. The growth of broadband, blogs and social-networking sites will let campaigns sign up far more people, raise millions more dollars -- and spread their messages more easily.
"McCain didn't have any social networking, and we had Meetup," said Mr. Trippi. "These guys start with Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Now millions more have [broadband] access, giving you new opportunities to rally the troops. We were on the racetrack by ourselves. Clearly that is not going to happen this time. Everybody is going to be pounding away."
Mark McKinnon, who's working with Mr. McCain this year, is a member of the forget-the-last-race school of thought. "In politics it is always a failing strategy to look at the last race. It's a brand new ballgame." Mr. McKinnon, the vice chairman of WPP Group's Public Strategies, headed George W. Bush's Maverick Media ad team eight years ago. This time around, he said, "the major candidates will have raised $20 million each before [the point] people announced eight years ago."
Mr. McKinnon said earlier primaries, the large number of candidates and this year's issues seem to be drawing public interest at an earlier stage. "The reality is it is starting a lot sooner, but [the primaries] will be over sooner too. The Democratic and Republican nominees will be effectively chosen by Feb. 1. That puts a huge premium on candidates showing their viability."
The important voters
Mr. Trippi agreed, adding that even if not everyone is watching, important voters -- primary voters -- are. "There is a group right now paying rapt attention even as the bulk of the country is tuned out. Whether you get to five million people depends on when you started with the first two. It's peer-to-peer politics we are talking about."
And even Mr. Sabato said candidates can't afford to sit still and watch rivals proceed.
"What is the alternative? You sit at home while other people are locking up contributions, key individuals and groups?" he said. "They are forced to participate in the insanity because to do the other is even more insane."
The biggest marketing challenge, the consultants and observers say, is how to best take advantage of short-term opportunities while dealing with the inevitable missteps. Longer election cycles mean more opportunity to screw up -- in fact, both Barack Obama and John McCain have already found themselves in hot water for saying American lives were "wasted" in Iraq.
The YouTube effect
There's also the YouTube effect. "When you look back at 2008," said Mr. Trippi, "you will also see the candidate who was riding high until the person with the cellphone caught them doing something or saying something and put it up on YouTube."
Of course, one possible benefit of an extremely long election cycle is that voters may forget the ugly stuff by the time they march to the polls.