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Question: Too Many Presidential Debates?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Gameron2852 asks,

What do you think is the optimal number of debates for a Presidential Primary? I understand the Republican has announced 12 (down from ~25ish in 2012) with more emphasis on debates after some of the primaries have occurred.

This still sounds like too many debates to effective? Why do you need more than 3 - 5 debates with a couple before Iowa and three spaced out later in the Primary.

Who benefits from debates during the fight for a party's presidential nomination?

1. Long-shot candidates. They get free exposure, and a chance to pounce if the front-runners stumble.

2. "Candidates" running to get big book contracts and lucrative talk-show slots. 

3. Local parties, which gain prestige from playing host to the events.

4. The news media, which have an event to cover, and especially the host cable networks, which get to promote their anchors and other correspondents for a cheap, relatively high-profile event.

5. Party actors who want to know more about the candidates but aren’t important enough to get to meet with them individually. (There are thousands of politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and media -- they can't all get a half-hour with a candidate.)

6. Party actors who (mistakenly) believe the general-election debates are very important and want to see how the candidates perform; alternatively, party actors who (probably mistakenly) believe that debate performances reveal how candidates behave under pressure, or that debates reveal the “real” candidate.

7. The party as a whole, which has an interest in pushing candidates to take public positions on specific issues, presumably consistent with the party platform, that they can't easily disavow later. The party also (usually) wants to showcase its best candidates and believes each debate is a strong advertisement for the party.

8. Rank-and-file voters, but only if the primary is approaching in the next week or two and they are now paying attention to a campaign they have been mostly ignoring for months (or years).

Who doesn’t want debates?

1. Front-running candidates.

2. Rarely, the party as a whole, to the extent that it believes its candidates (or the audiences they bring to the debates) are embarrassing and that more exposure to the spectacle will drive away voters. 

There's an imbalance, obviously, in favor of debates, and then more debates, and then even more. This can go way beyond what anyone wants,  which is why Republicans are trying to limit the number of debates this cycle. After which the number will likely expand again. 

Or, to answer the question directly: there is no optimal number of debates. Just a lot of incentive to hold lots of them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net