Let's talk about money first. The next U.S. president might well spend $1 billion trying to win the job. That is a thousand million dollars. Even if the campaigns don't consume quite that amount, this will probably be the most expensive presidential race ever.
In comparison, German Chancellor Angela Merkel needed $20 million for her successful reelection campaign in 2009, and many Germans considered even that a waste of money.
Certainly, the United States has four times as many citizens as Germany, but in America you need up to 50 times as much money to win an election. Campaigning is an essential part of democracy, and it is admirable how much money Americans are willing to spend for their beliefs, but still it seems disproportionate.
Apart from that, the potential conflicts of interest from all the lobbyist money that goes into Super PACs is worrying. In fact, in many European countries people would be worried about politicians spending so much time in the fund-raising circus. They are paid to solve the country's problems, not attend cocktail parties and conduct small talk. Let them sweat from the workload, not the spotlights needed for just another negative TV advertisement.
Along with much of that negative campaigning comes polarization. Many Germans watch the intense U.S. political fights with fascination, as their own politicians often prefer consensus to conflict.
Of course, there are political fights in Europe. The French just had one in which Socialist Francois Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent conservative president. But even that fight wasn't as personal as some U.S. campaigns.
On the one hand, the French usually do not care too much if candidates paid their taxes fairly and regularly (though maybe they should). On the other hand, in France there are no silly accusations about a candidate being a secret Muslim from somewhere else in the world.
The good thing about controversy is that it gives people a choice and helps them make up their minds. However, if polarization gets too extreme, shared government can become dysfunctional government. Last year's game of chicken over raising the debt ceiling is a case in point. When political parties could not distinguish between work that had to be done and scoring political points, the government was in danger of defaulting. Such a result is stunning to foreigners, but it should be even more worrying to Americans, as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein have warned in their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks.
Adding to the polarization is the constant focus on social issues, although it does not make much difference who wins the election as far as these issues are concerned.
Conservatives have railed against abortion since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. They might argue that the decision makes it imperative that they add as many conservative justices to the high court as they can. Still, an issue that will not be decided by a president or Congress should not be at the center of an election campaign.
This year, President Obama decided to endorse gay marriage, although he was opposed to it before - and in favor of it before he opposed it. Maybe he changed his mind. But it seems as if he has finally come to the conclusion that coming out in favor of gay marriage might get him more voters than it will cost him. The fascinating thing here is, again, the presidential election will most likely change nothing about gay marriage. Each state will decide the issue for itself.
To many Europeans, it seems surprising that people would vote against their own economic interest just to make statements about abortion and gay marriage. Most people in Germany or France don't tend to vote for people because they share values, but because they hope to resolve problems.
After all, this is about a country's leader, not some high school popularity contest. Aren't there difficult and important issues at stake, such as the economy and the high unemployment rate? Why turn up the heat in the middle of an already hot election summer?
The foreigner's judgment: American election campaigns are always tough, sometimes hysterical, and, frankly, just a little bit strange - but they provide a lot of suspense and therefore fun for the follower. The polar bear can afford to relax on the beach, have a drink, and simply watch what is happening.
Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in Cologne, Germany; he is visiting The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.