The Campaign Spot

RNC May Try to Limit Number, Format of GOP Debates in 2016

Over on the home page, I have an interview with Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, mostly discussing the RNC”s new Growth and Opportunity Project, which is led by a five-member panel that will review their operations and strategies and those of the Republican party as a whole. Perhaps most intriguing and newsworthy was Priebus’s comment about an effort to limit the number of GOP presidential-primary debates and the format in 2016.

GERAGHTY: One of the intriguing points I saw raised in the discussions that this group has had is the recommendation of changes to the presidential-primary schedule. Are you hoping to see changes in how the primaries are set up?

PRIEBUS: One of the major topics that people discuss is the debate issue — controlling the debates and tying the nomination process to the debate calendar is something we’re going to look at. Now, we didn’t have that opportunity two years ago; there is no mechanism to tie the nomination process to the debate calendar. But we have that opportunity now. We can do that with a three-quarters vote of the Republican National Committee. Here’s a hypothetical. The RNC could hypothetically say, “Look, here’s the debate calendar. Here are the moderators. We’re going to have one debate a month starting on this day.” And adherence to the calendar will be a requirement to achieving the nomination to the presidency — either through bonus delegates or penalties of delegates subtracted. There is one major reason that a presidential candidate needs the Republican party: To get on the ballot in November, a presidential candidate must get a majority of delegates at a national convention to vote for him or her. If the presidential candidate can’t make that happen, he or she is not on the ballot. So that is one idea that we will be looking at.

If you have ten presidential candidates, and seven out of ten or eight out of ten will take whatever two-hour slot that is open to them, then you end up with a debate any time some cable network decides to hold one. You can’t control that situation. Our endeavor is to come up with some idea that helps us control that situation.

There were 20 debates last cycle, including seven between January 7 and February 22. More than a few analysts wondered if the seemingly endless succession of debates hurt the Republican brand, with the time and attention divided between nine candidates some evenings, and some of those candidates having little support.

Even if every candidate on stage was worth serious consideration, it’s easy to argue that having 20 debates, and sometimes more than one per week, made each individual debate less newsworthy and important. Many of the answers sounded the same (particularly when shoehorned into two minutes or less), and after a while they sounded like contests to see which candidates could denounce Obama the most, pledge genuine economic recovery the most, praise the Tea Party the most, and so on. Voters could learn just as much about the candidates in five or ten debates.

Quite a few conservatives didn’t like some of the moderators this time around (George Stephanopoulos asking the candidates about states’ banning contraception, etc.). Perhaps the RNC will contemplate a stipulation that no former Democratic lawmakers’ staffers may moderate one of the debates.


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