Politics & Policy

Are the Debates Working?

Walker, Trump, and Bush at the first GOP debate. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

The process had to be changed.

In 2012, the Republican National Committee (RNC) had no influence over the GOP primary-debate schedule, which was left entirely to the television networks broadcasting the events. The committee was such an afterthought that Reince Priebus, who became its chairman in January 2011, actually had to call the networks and ask for tickets. Almost everyone agreed that the resulting 20-debate slate was needlessly chaotic: Two events were held within five days on opposite sides of the country in September, followed by two more in a four-day span in November. The networks’ haphazard planning created frequent last-minute changes and logistical problems.

The RNC’s more active role in planning and organizing this cycle’s debates grew from post-election discussions with 2012 campaign staffers. The committee reduced the number of debates to eleven, focusing on a desire to send the candidates outside of the traditional early primary states. Each event’s date, location, and host network was finalized by July. And a biweekly conference call with representatives from each campaign was instituted, so the RNC could provide regular updates on event logistics.

The reduced, more tightly planned schedule of debates heightens the stakes and drama of the 2016 GOP nominating contest, and the RNC is largely happy with the results so far. But the changes have also made it much harder for lesser known candidates to rise. Fewer debates mean fewer chances for a front-runner to make a crucial mistake, and fewer opportunities for a little-known underdog to shine in the spotlight.

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Combined with a factor the RNC couldn’t foresee — the unprecedented size of the field — the slimmed-down schedule has made for a tragedy of the commons, with a glut of candidates who might shine on a four- or five-person stage struggling for attention when surrounded by twice as many rivals. With so many contenders in the field, it’s impossible for anyone except the top two or three in the polls to get much press coverage outside of the debates — and it’s proven difficult for anyone at all to get enough attention in them.

The slimmed-down schedule has made for a tragedy of the commons, with a glut of candidates struggling for attention.

Rand Paul had less than five minutes in the roughly two-hour Fox News debate, and Scott Walker spoke for less than nine minutes in the three-hour CNN debate, before withdrawing from the race altogether. Even Ted Cruz, whose campaign remains in a healthier position, has had problems getting a word in. And CNBC’s decision to limit this week’s debate to two hours, per a request from Donald Trump and Ben Carson, further reduces the time for non-front-runners to make their mark.

#share#But at least they’re on a stage with their top-tier rivals. The historically large field of candidates has led to the so-called “kiddie-table” debates for those polling outside the top ten. They’re much-reviled by lower tier campaigns, and so far no candidate other than Carly Fiorina has managed to use one as a springboard to the main stage.

RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer is quick to point out that for all of the complaints about the undercard debates, in past cycles candidates polling so poorly probably wouldn’t have appeared on any debate stage. In 2012, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson was invited to only two of the debates. ABC News and the Des Moines Register chose not to invite Jon Huntsman to their December debate because he hadn’t reached 5 percent in Iowa or nationwide. And several other long-shot candidates weren’t invited to any.

#related#In a sense, however, the most-remarked upon problems with the 2016 debates can be blamed on the size of the field, and there may be room to improve the process even further in the future. This is the first cycle in which the parties’ respective national committees had a say in planning the debates, and it was made possible by a pledge that the candidates would not attend events unsanctioned by their parties — a pledge enforced on pain of losing delegates. If all of the candidates stick to their word, it will set a new precedent, and could give the parties even more leverage in organizing the debates next time around. This, in turn, would allow the RNC to fine-tune the process, addressing complaints about the debates’ length, their two-tiered format, and their lack of conservative moderators.

Until then, most of the remaining 15 candidates will continue struggling to produce a breakthrough moment in the little time they have on screen.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review and author of Heavy Lifting.

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