Solving the Republican Debate Dilemma
There are now several declared presidential candidates each with varying degrees of probability of success. With state legislative sessions coming to a close, there is the possibility that the field will grow with announcements by Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie. At this point, anything is possible. The problem now is the number of candidates and how one can fit them on all on a single stage and how any such debate would allow anyone to do justice with an answer.
Fox News hosts the first debate on August 6th in Cleveland, Ohio- the site of 2016’s Republican National Convention. They have decided that they will only have the top ten candidates as determined by the Realclearpolitics average of polls for all candidates. That means that if the debate were held today, candidates like Kasich, Jindal, Fiorina and Santorum would be shut out. Obviously, if I were one of these candidates I would be crying foul. This idea is inherently unfair.
CNN is scheduled to host the second debate on September 16th at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. They have it partially correct and will hold two debates if the field is crowded. Although the rules are kind of complicated with tie-breakers and such, the top ten contenders will form one pool for a debate while “all the rest” will comprise a second debate pool. The mechanics of two debates have yet to be worked out.
The road to the Presidency for the GOP is interesting this time around given the number of candidates. It is a nice problem to have, but a complicated one. Instead of the Fox News method or the CNN method, there is a better way- the NCAA method. Since Fox News, CNN and the other likely hosts (CNBC, ABC and CBS) will also use polls to determine participants, these polls could be used to create a seeding format much like the NCAA does when they determine March Madness brackets.
Let us assume there are 14 candidates by the time the first debate rolls around. All candidates would be rank-ordered 1-14 with 1 and 14 in pool A, 2 and 13 in Pool B, and so on. Based on the average of polls from RCP at this point in time, that would create the following pools: Pool A- Jeb Bush, George Pataki, Ben Carson, John Kasich, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) 88%, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) 100% and Rick Santorum. In Pool B would be Scott Walker, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) 44%, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) 92%, Carly Florin, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie.
Each pool of debates would be held simultaneously although not necessarily in the same venue. For example,the pool A debate could be in Cleveland with the pool B debate in Cincinnati. The host news outlet would determine which debate they would telecast live while the other one would be taped and broadcast immediately after the live telecast. In this way, neither pool has a competitive advantage over the other pool. The questions and formats would be identical and agreed upon by the moderators in advance and would be asked in the same order of all candidates.
In this way, every candidate is treated equally despite their position in an average of polls since polling is rife with pitfalls, especially this early in the election cycle. Since this is a winnowing process, it is unlikely that anyone would drop out before a single caucus or primary is held although that could happen. But, this format would be used until the overall number of candidates drops to single digits (nine or less). This will likely happen after Iowa and New Hampshire. The only problem would be logistical.
This method would, I believe, be incredibly more fair than exclusively relying on polls to simply dismiss candidates from the debates. It starts with the supposition that all candidates are equal going into this fight despite how they perform in the polls or how much money they have raised to this point, or their national name recognition. The only other option for national exposure is to do or say something dramatic to get your name in the news and that could be a recipe for disaster.
Although neither are “my choice” at this point, I personally am anxious to hear what a George Pataki or a Ben Carson has to say. To read news accounts, Carly Fiorina was “wowing” them in Iowa recently, yet she would not get a place on the stage under Fox’s system. Under the CNN system, she would be placed in a pool with other long shots. I am anxious to hear what all the candidates have to say and the best method is in a fair, standard, and concise debate format that actually includes everyone.
One caveat, however: if Donald Trump was a candidate, I would automatically exclude him from any debate and actually put him in a car out of town.