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Here’s Another Solution To The GOP Presidential Debate Problem


The Republican field of candidates fighting for the nomination for president is already large and it’s expected to grow. Just yesterday we heard that Lindsay Graham and Bobby Jindal are in the penultimate steps of announcing. There could be well over a dozen candidates by the time of the first scheduled televised GOP presidential debate in August.

It’s a problem for the GOP. A good problem to have, certainly, but a problem nonetheless. The GOP certainly would not trade its plight for the Democrats’ situation — two aging senator-types from the northeastern part of the country who aren’t bothering to disagree with each other. Still, Republicans have to figure something out since most people don’t want to see 15 candidates speak for only 6 minutes each in a 1.5-hour debate.

Even 10 is way too many for fruitful debates to help voters figure out who they want as their nominee. But how do you limit the field in a fair manner? Conn Carroll has an idea:

Sure. Right now that’s Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson. Who doesn’t make the cut? Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal and Lindsay Graham. I’d like to hear from each of those candidates. And more, frankly.

1) Who, exactly, determines viability?

Whenever a candidate throws his or her hat into the ring, political journalists quickly assert whether said candidate is “viable.” They give far, far more coverage to those candidates that they have deemed worthy. Mickey Kaus wrote about this earlier this year:

Journalists love to publicly complain about the influence of money in politics — it’s one of those safe causes that doesn’t compromise your objectivity. But when it comes time to campaign, journalists do the donors’ dirty work for them by refusing to cover candidates who aren’t backed by lots of money. Those candidates are deemed “non-viable” oddities and not worth telling voters about.

There’s no excuse for this: 1) It’s a self-fulfilling prediction. Of course fringe or underfunded candidates won’t be ‘viable’ if they can’t get press (“free media”) to catch the voters’ attention; 2) Even if long-shot candidates stay on the fringe, covering them would have entertainment value. Newspapers cover obscure TV stars these days. Political candidates are often — I’d say, usually — more colorful than actors. The premature winnowing by self-satisfied journalistic pros drains democracy of much of its exuberance, presenting voters with a sharply limited array of options. No wonder they feel alienated. Then the pros scold them for low turnout.

There’s something to this. No, I don’t think Sen. Lindsay Graham is the likely nominee. Of course, I have horrible prognostication powers. But either way, when he proudly states that he’d drone American citizens on American soil for unproven suspicion of terrorist sympathies, what’s the harm in covering that?

Yes, ability to generate a certain amount of grassroots support is a good criteria for inclusion in a debate. But failure to include someone in a debate is a good way to ensure they’ll never develop any support. Yes, donor dollars are a good indication of support as well. But who knows what donors might like if exposed to more candidates in a debate-like setting. Particularly with the early rounds of debates, the GOP should seek to include as many candidates as possible.

2) Let’s have a March Madness of GOP contenders

There are a few ways they could do this. The most important thing to realize is that where there used to be one debate, there should now be three. Let’s say there are 14-17 candidates (or more!). Even dividing that group in half is pretty cumbersome. So let’s break up each future debate into three debates for the vibrant GOP field. At least until some winnowing happens.

It’s kind of like the Olympics. You have the best people from each country competing in the 400 meters, but not everyone is going to fit on the track at the same time. So you have heats. And it’s really up to the GOP establishment, I guess, to determine how those heats are set. One way would be to have tiers of candidates. Tier one is whichever three have the highest A+B where A=donor support and B=support in polling. Tier two would be the next half dozen or so. Tier three would be the remaining. You take one from tier one, two from tier two and two from tier three and you have yourself a more manageable debate. If Bobby Jindal blows everyone’s socks off, he could go up in donor and voter support. If Marco Rubio’s “safety over everything” foreign policy goes over poorly, he might drop down.

It could be like March Madness, where top seeds get to go up against lowest-ranked contestants. The top seeds definitely have an advantage, but not an insurmountable one. By the time you get to the Final Four, it doesn’t necessarily look like anyone predicted it would, but you have four victorious teams who made it through some grueling battles.

Limiting debates to the top seven would have meant excluding the guy who became the runner-up for the Republican nomination in 2012, the guy who ended up winning Iowa (Santorum). At some points it would have eliminated Newt Gingrich, who also ended up performing well. There simply has to be a better way.

3) Failing that, make it random.

Or if the GOP thinks these heats would disadvantage their top contenders, what with four lower-rung contenders ganging up on each of the top contenders, they could simply make the participants in each debate completely random. Draw lots for all I care. Just mix it up a bit. Maybe there’s a David Brat in the group who can take down a Jeb. Maybe it will just help the party get unified around a particular candidate.

I’m sure that the GOP establishment would love nothing more than to limit these debates to a few candidates who already have tremendous donor support. That would be easier. But there’s a wisdom in exposing more people to more discussions of GOP policies and ideas — particularly at a time when the Democrats have one candidate who refuses to answer questions and a field (Sanders and Clinton) that hasn’t bothered to disagree with each other that much. Republicans should be encouraging candidates to engage in some Lincoln-Douglas debates. I’d absolutely love to see each candidate square off against another on a foreign policy topic. If one such matchup was between Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, we could all have watch parties. Ben Domenech is right when he argues against debate moderators, which is such a simple fix in so many ways that it’s amazing it hasn’t been tried before.

4) Does this mean Trump would be in?

You had to ask that, didn’t you. Yes, it does mean Trump would be in if he were claiming to want the Republican nomination. It’s just the price you have to pay for having vibrant and open debates. But it does bring to mind the possibility of some limitations:

I love it. I’d add television show contracts and put it in there. If the run for presidency is just a means for you to sell books and get your own TV show, you don’t really need to have such goals subsidized by the GOP. So this would be a sensible limitation to participation.

But otherwise, let’s get ready to rumble! Let’s take away the George Stephanopoulos-type moderators (remember when he launched the War on Women messaging by asking, during a GOP debate the GOP somehow allowed him to moderate, the most random question about birth control ever? Fun times.) and start having candidates debate each other.