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Yes, Republicans Should Rig Their 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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What should Republicans do about their presidential debates? 

The problem is twofold. First, they will have too many candidates. Debates usually last 90 minutes. Subtract commercial breaks, introductions and moderator questions and start dividing by 10, 12, 15 candidates or more, and there isn't going to be much time per candidate.

Second, any objective standard used to determine whom to invite (current poll standings, for example) may mean including some “wrong” contenders at the expense of the "right" ones. That is, someone with a legitimate chance at the nomination might be excluded while a joke candidate (and the nightmare is Donald Trump) gets an invitation.

My View colleague Margaret Carlson has the right solution:  “What the party elders need is a smoke-filled room.” Yes, to the extent it can, the Republican Party should rig the process, and invite the candidates it wants to include. Candidates aren't entitled to fairness or transparency. The race for the nomination isn’t a battle among candidates. It's a decision made by a political party. And the party has every right to set up a process to help protect itself down the road. 

The first step is to figure out which candidates should be included, then find some algorithm to put those names on the list. So what if it requires a little creativity for this data -- say, “finding” some ancient party rule excluding candidates who have had their hair mentioned too many times by late-night comedians.

OK, yes, the parties do have some practical constraints limiting how they can rig the list. 

Candidates can choose to schedule any debates they want (and broadcasters may air these events), so it isn't clear if formal party organizations have sufficient clout to maintain any control of the debates at all.

Right now, the party has limited the schedule to nine “official” Republican debates. But if, say, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul decide to have an unsanctioned debate and invite several others, the Republican National Committee can't do much about it. They could threaten to kick people out of official debates who have taken part in a rogue one, but it's an empty ultimatum. 

So exclusions have to be balanced against the party's interest in maintaining as much influence as possible on the rest of the decisions about the debates.

“Unfairly” excluding a candidate such as Trump is unlikely to cause much trouble. But ruling out seemingly qualified candidates, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, or even more more marginal choices such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, could create headaches -- especially if the omissions would insult important groups in the party.

So Republicans should be thinking about a format -- a succession of small panels, perhaps? -- that allows a dozen or more candidates to participate. Ideas, anyone?

  1. What if Republicans want to include, say, Carly Fiorina, even if she has terrible poll numbers? Just add a rule that any Republican who recently ran for the U.S. Senate in a state with more than 30 electoral votes gets to participate.

  2. One problem is that the Republican National Committee isn't all that important within the overall party network, which is made up of national, state and local formal organizations as well as looser groupings. 

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