The sheer number of current and likely Republican candidates for President in 2016 is testing the boundaries of how the candidate selection process should work. Currently, there are more than a dozen announced and anticipated candidates whose names you are likely to have heard of — and if you credit a website called 2016.republican-candidates.org you’ll see many more candidates who have, until now, wallowed in the realm of obscurity.
Believe it or not, the first Republican debate for the 2016 campaign is less than three months away. It will be held in Cleveland on August 6, 2015 and broadcast by Fox News. But how do you broadcast a meaningful debate with more than a dozen participants? Fox has decided that you don’t. It will allow only the top ten candidates, as shown in the five most recent national polls prior to the debate, to participate. CNN, which is broadcasting the second debate in September, has taken a different approach: it will hold one debate with the top ten and another with a second-tier group of candidates that get at least 1 percent support in the polls and have at least one paid campaign worker in at least two of the first four states that will hold caucuses or primaries.
Already people are wondering what these decisions mean, both in terms of the role of networks in the selection process and how campaigns are organized. Should networks be able to winnow out those who can participate in a public debate, and won’t the Fox and CNN rules mean that campaigns will have to be conducted with an eye toward getting the candidates into the top ten tier prior to the debates? And what does it all mean for the chances of dark-horse candidates and the Republican process?
I think networks have the right to limit participants in forums they provide. They shouldn’t have to give valuable air time to every person who has declared their candidacy — a list that, according to the 2016.republican-candidates.org website, includes people named Skip Andrews, Michael Bickelmeyer, Kerry Bowers, and Dale Christensen (and that’s just going through the first three letters of the alphabet). At some point, too, “debates” in which there are throngs of debaters become unmanageable and pointless, either because they turn into scrums in which people are talking over each other or are given so little time to respond that you learn almost nothing meaningful about the candidates’ positions on the issues. You might question how the field is winnowed — it seems to me, for example, that any person who has been elected governor of a significant state is sufficient serious to warrant inclusion — but some selection mechanism inevitably will be used.
Will it change how campaigns are run? Certainly. A process that has become increasingly front-loaded will now become even more so, with candidates planning appearances and spending money so that they increase their chances of getting into the initial top ten and get that national debate exposure. It also means that people who seem to be on the fence, like Ohio Governor John Kasich, had better make a decision so they are included in the crucial public opinion polls. And will it hurt dark-horse candidates like former CEO Carly Fiorina or Dr. Ben Carson? Not necessarily, in my view. If candidates have an appealing message, they will get noticed. Now, they’ll just have to work on doing it earlier.
You’ll hear people saying that all of this is bad for our democracy, but let’s not kid ourselves. The role of money in politics, and the increasing focus on early caucuses and primaries, have made it increasingly difficult for outlier candidates to become mainstream. That’s just the reality of the world. Not being included in a debate in August 2015 isn’t necessarily going to be fatal to a 2016 presidential candidate, either. How many people aside from political junkies are going to be watching it, anyway?
These early debates may be of great interest to pundits and provide strong performers with alleged momentum, but they’re not going to make a significant dent in the national consciousness. They’ll be the first shows in a long series of shows — so why not let the producers set rules that they think will make the shows more entertaining?