There are no meetings or support groups. There is no 12-step program. But for Rob Hallam, when he is not watching election news, he feels like a "dry drunk." "It's hard not watching in such a critical election," he says. "It feels like withdrawal." At one point, Hallam estimates he spent about 20 hours each week following the campaign. Every night, after he helped his 6-year-old twin girls with their homework and sang them their goodnight song, he and his wife would routinely settle in for three hours of election coverage. Bill O'Reilly on Fox, Chris Matthews on MSNBC, Tom Brokaw on "Meet the Press"—you name it, they recorded it on their DVR and watched it. They decided to hold off on having more children, as well as some major renovations on their house, until after the election.
When Hallam started going to bed so wired from election coverage that he couldn't sleep, he knew he needed to cut back. He's now on an "election diet": a half hour of television at night, a few magazines here and there. "It takes tremendous discipline," says Hallam. "You've got to make conscious decisions not to go to the Web sites."
In a mid-October Pew Center report, 61 percent of Americans reported following campaign coverage very closely; the center has never seen such high numbers since they started tracking news interest in 1988. Part of that has to do with the gravity with which Americans view this election. There's also the entertainment factor: from Clinton's teary-eyed moment in New Hampshire through Palin's $150,000 wardrobe, it's a two-year drama that's had more twists and turns than "Gossip Girl." Every one of these breaking developments lands in a news environment that, even since 2004, has become increasingly available and fast. Online, on air or in print, there's always the latest campaign news to keep up with or new poll numbers to digest. "Anybody who is a potential abuser or addict has been enabled by technology in this election cycle," says Stuart Fischoff, a senior editor at the Journal of Media Psychology. "With election news available 24/7, its like a chocoholic in a candy store." Come Nov. 5, he says, election addiction may very well translate into election withdrawal. "Some people will move on," says Fischoff." "But for some people, life will kind of be like an empty vessel."
The election has, for many close followers, become a dependable source of entertainment, excitement and surprises. "I live and die for daily tracking polls," says Brad Levinson, 25, who works for a new-media company in Washington, D.C. Over the past few months, Levinson figured out when each Web site releases its daily polls. His routine has come to revolve around it: wake up at 8 a.m. and check the Daily Kos poll—the first one out—get to work at 9 a.m., when Rasmussen Reports has their data up. Gallup comes out around lunchtime, so he stops by their site at 1 p.m. "I don't really know what I'm going to do," says Levinson of his life post-election. "I'll miss the excitement of being ahead of the curve and already know what the pundits are going to spin on television." The one time Levinson tried kicking his election addiction it didn't go well: while on vacation with his girlfriend's family, he lasted just two and a half days before checking the RSS feed on his iPhone.
What's so addictive about this election that makes it such an unwelcome goodbye? Some say they're emotionally dependent on the high-stakes drama. Everybody is enthusiastic, concerned, excited and frustrated about this election," says Jean Kaiser, a 49-year-old business consultant in Bellevue, Wash. She says she spends about 40 percent of her free time following news coverage. With emotions running so high, Kaiser thinks she'll "definitely have some withdrawal. I'll try and find ways to fill the space, but it'll be hard at first. I can take up a hobby, maybe video editing."
Others who have overhauled their lives for this election, say they're now unfamiliar—even uncomfortable—with a life where politics is not front and center. Six months ago, Adam L. Barr quit his job and postponed his wedding to become a field organizer for Obama. He's spent the last two weeks as a full-time volunteer in Richmond, Va. "The campaign kind of becomes your girlfriend, and you develop this really strong relationship with it," he says. "But then it just leaves you." After the election, he'll move back in with his fiancée (they've rescheduled their wedding for this spring). He's looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family but apprehensive about life outside the campaign office. "I'll miss seeing people working toward a common goal because they think they're making the country a better place," says Barr. "We've been living in our own alternate universe where the election is the only thing that matters. There will some difficulty leaving that."
Those who have the most severe election withdrawal will likely be the businesses whose profit margins depend on it: cable networks and political Web sites. "We're not under any illusion that we're going to be doing the same kind of traffic" after the election, says John McIntyre, president of RealClearPolitics. He says they'd be lucky to hold on to about 40 percent of their peak election audience. The three major cable networks—CNN, Fox News and MSNBC—have all seen their ratings skyrocket, thanks to the election. But if history's any guide, there will inevitably be a post-election crash.Both Fox and CNN saw double-digit drops in their prime-time ratings the day after the 2004 election. What happens to MSNBC, which has branded itself as "The Place for Politics," when politics isn't the lead story? "We can't sustain what we have now, but we've got some great personalities that are connecting to people," says Phil Griffin, the cable network's president. He's banking on their prime-time personalities with loyal followings, like Rachel Maddow, and the continuing financial crisis to keep viewers tuned in.
Already on an election diet, Hallam foresees his own Nov. 5 transition as being relatively smooth. "We have to focus again, remember our priorities and that life goes on," he says. Levinson, the poll tracker, doesn't really know what he'll do with his newfound free time. He might get around to decorating the apartment he moved into a few months ago. He'll probably spend more time with his girlfriend, too. And, even with this election coming to a close, he says he has a reason to remain optimistic: the midterm elections are only two years away.