In January 2015, the GOP announced it would hold 9 presidential primary debates from August 2015 to March 2016. Since then, 16 candidates have officially declared they are running to be the 2016 Republican standard bearer. Yet the GOP has decided to limit their initial presidential debate to only the candidates polling in the top 10 in national polls.
Leave it to the GOP to engineer new ways to limit their brand. Sometimes the party seems so inept you’d think they would screw up a bowl of cereal.
The GOP arguably has the strongest field of presidential candidates in decades. It includes two sitting, reelected governors (Bobby Jindal and John Kasich), one blue state governor who has been elected three times in 4 years thanks to a failed recall effort (Scott Walker), another blue state governor who is not afraid to speak his mind and take stands on difficult issues (Chris Christie), several former multi-term governors (Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki and Rick Perry), several sitting US senators (Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio), a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company and probably the strongest Republican woman candidate ever (Carly Fiorina), a highly accomplished African-American pediatric neurosurgeon (though novice politician) with strong grass roots support (Ben Carson), a former purple state senator (Rick Santorum), and a former IRS Commissioner (Mark Everson).
Oh, and an egotistical, rhetorical bomb throwing business mogul who was essentially a Democrat supporter until recently, and happens to be leading in national polls.
With a field like this, you’d think the GOP would want to get as much exposure and debate for all of them. Wouldn’t that aid the selection process? This is especially true with The Donald sucking all the oxygen out of the contest. Instead, by limiting the first debate to the top 10 in national polls, the party has effectively turned it into Donny and the Also-Rans.
That said, it is unlikely The Donald’s appeal will last beyond a few months, at least as a Republican. He has tapped into the raw anger and frustration many Republicans and Tea Party identifiers have felt for years but have not seen voiced by a figure with such national recognition. He speaks out plainly and aggressively on issues many others shrink from and he’s not afraid to criticize or even insult his opponents. He even wears a marmot pelt on his head. But once people look past the magniloquence and bombast, they’ll find he is not just an impolitic but seemingly tenacious messenger—he’s an opportunist.
In 2012, The Donald spoke very highly of Hillary Clinton’s work as Secretary of State saying she is “terrific” and “she does a good job. I like her.” He also has donated thousands to Clinton and at least $100,000 to the scandal plagued Clinton Foundation. Two weeks ago he described Clinton as “the worst Secretary of State in the history of the United States.” In 1999, The Donald told Tim Russet on NBC he was “very pro-choice” on abortion. Then earlier this year he said he “is pro-life and has been pro-life,” a position he first announced in 2011. He presently blasts Obamacare but called universal healthcare a “must have” in 2000. He inartfully rips into illegal immigration while employing illegal immigrants though he says he’d like to root them out. Now, he certainly could have legitimately changed his views on this controversial issues–he claims his pro-life stance was motivated by a personal experience a friend conveyed to him. Yet so many inconsistencies smacks of opportunism. And regardless of what you think about John McCain’s politics, The Donald insulted the military service of the Arizona senator and other veterans who served, and suffered as POWs, by coming off as a clumsy and conceited chicken hawk.
He is, bottom line, a celebrity and celebrities, by definition, are popular. He has suffered little in the polls so far though few polls have been taken since the McCain flap. He may be the Teflon Don today but it’s only a matter of time before he pays a heavy price for the contradictions and ego. By then, however, we may have already had the August debate, his place on stage secured at the expense of other, more qualified, more Republican candidates.
Obviously it makes no sense to have 16 candidates on the stage at one time. If they tried this each candidate would have maybe 4 minutes of time in a 90-minute debate. That’s assuming the politicians, who love to talk, and Teflon Don, obey rules limiting talk time and don’t talk over each other. More significantly, you would have the entire group shooting for the perfectly pithy sound bite rather than attacking the Democrat opposition, presenting solutions to the serious issues of our time and debating their merits. Blame this on smart phones, instant entertainment, and 24-hour news cycles, where the media focus is the daily horserace and many people have developed the attention span of a gnat in a tornado.
The answer is not doubling the number of debates. The 20 or so GOP debates in 2012 were, to be charitable, a colossal blunder that encouraged candidate cannibalism. At the same time, the 2012 debate process naturally helped winnow the field. The first debate in May 2011 included 5 of the 6 declared candidates (front-runner Mitt Romney skipped it). By the sixth (sixth!) debate in September 2011, 9 declared candidates were on the stage and one had dropped out (Tim Pawlenty). In November, five debates later, Herman Cain dropped out. The party didn’t get down to the top 4 until 2 days before the South Carolina Primary in late January 2013. But the candidates, who started out focusing their attention on President Obama, ultimately set their sights on each other. This always happens at some point but significantly more debates creates a greater likelihood of a circular firing squad.
There is also no reason to artificially limit the number of debaters so early in the selection process. Doing so only favors those with higher name recognition which is largely influenced by who the media elites decide to cover. It’s no surprise Teflon Don is leading the polls when the media can’t get enough, or share enough of him. His celebrity and name recognition might get him into the top 10 without the media coverage. But he also gets viewers so he’s certainly receiving a nice assist from those gunning for better ratings. When the music stops he takes one of the coveted rostrums at the expense of other candidates lacking his checkered Republican qualifications.
The GOP can fix these problems very simply.
They have already planned for 9 debates (sounds like a reasonable number) in approximately 7 months. For the first debate, run two debates simultaneously or consecutively on the same day. If they did them consecutively, they’d already have the theater set up. Place the 16 declared names into a hat draw out 8 names to appear in the first 90 minutes. The 8 remaining names would appear in the second 90 minutes. Then, for the next debate a month or so later, place the previously chosen sets of 8 names in separate hats and draw 4 from each hat to debate first, with the remaining candidates debating second. Repeat this process for the third debate. Everyone will then have participated with plenty of time to speak while ensuring the candidates are debating some fresh faces each time.
Over the course of a few months and once the party gets to about the fourth debate, the candidates will have shown what they can do and polls will likely have separated the wheat from the chaff, the contenders from the pretenders. Then the GOP can limit the number of participants to the top 4 or 6 or whatever, or anyone polling above a particular percentage.
How else are lesser known candidates going to gain traction? The most recent poll of registered voters from Public Policy Polling had the top 9 candidates in order as Trump, Walker, Bush, Rubio, Carson, Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and Fiorina. If the debate were held today, either Christie or Kasich would be left out as they are tied for 10th (and how do you determine which one is on stage?). Jindal, Perry, Santorum, Graham and the rest would also be sidelined. Perry ran unsuccessfully (and fairly disastrously) in 2012. Santorum did as well and even won the Iowa caucuses but ultimately came up short. Sometimes successful nominees have failed in previous presidential primary runs (think Ronald Reagan in 1976). Why should former also-rans be left off the stage when perhaps the second time is the charm for them? Christie, Kasich and Jindal, who is of Indian descent, are all sitting governors with interesting backgrounds and upbringings. Kasich last year won reelection by 31% in Ohio, a huge margin in a swing state that is always at the center of presidential election politics and could carry a national electoral college win. They ultimately may not garner much support much less win the nomination, but do they have nothing to add so early in the process? And could none of them tap into the grass roots and generate momentum for himself and broadly for the party?
CNN’s most recent poll of adults has the top 10 in order as Trump, Bush, Walker, Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, Carson, Christie and Kasich. The Real Clear Politics average of all recent national polls is consistent with this poll. So Fiorina would join Graham, Jindal, Perry and Santorum on the outside looking in if the GOP relied on this poll. Does the party really want to keep the only female candidate, herself an excellent debater and natural rival to Hillary Clinton, off the stage?
And should the GOP give the same weight to polls of “adults” as in the CNN poll, as they would to “registered voters” as in the PPP poll? What about polls of “likely voters” who tend to be an even better measure of true election support?
I’m sure there would be logistical and financial issues to overcome. The GOP would have to pay for more media time and facility services but certainly not as much as in 2012. Viewers could get “debate fatigue” so perhaps the “First 8 Debate” could be broadcast live and the “Second 8 Debate” pre-recorded to air the following day.
The slate will have to be narrowed at some point. Money and fundraising problems, the debate process, and media exposure will naturally cause attrition. And maybe the candidates in the lower tier of popularity now are the most likely to be the first to drop out. But limiting the number of candidates 6 months before the first primary and caucus, and 15 months before the general election, is unfairly prejudicial to these candidates and artificially limits the party’s brand and reach at a time when it should be striving to grow.
It wouldn’t take much to give all the candidates a chance to gain traction. The GOP should at least give them a chance to establish themselves on the national stage in the first few debates. It’s good for the candidates and even better for a party looking to create serious solutions to our nation’s problems while expanding its brand.