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Let All Candidates Debate

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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In late 2011, during the planning for one of the debates of Republican presidential candidates, questions were raised about whether the eight-person field would be too unwieldy for television. One suggestion was to drop the low man in the polls, former Senator Rick Santorum.

Fortunately, the idea was rejected. The debate was a success; Santorum went on to win the Iowa caucuses and was the runner-up to Mitt Romney for the nomination.

This is a useful reminder as the crazy-quilt plans for Republican, and perhaps Democratic, debates start to take shape. The Republican National Committee is trying to take control of the debates of party candidates, and wants its say on the participating journalists as well as some ground rules. 

The first nationally televised forum of Republican contenders will be a travesty if, as is very possible, it includes Donald Trump and excludes serious but lower-polling politicians such as Ohio Governor John Kasich or Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The Republican National Committee, reasoning that a surfeit of primary debates hurt Romney in the last general election, moved to designate nine official debates (so far) at specific times and places, and warned candidates against participating in any others. The Democratic National Committee has called for six debates -- predictably, Senator Bernie Sanders wants more -- without providing the specifics of time and place.

It wasn't the seemingly endless number of debates that cost Romney the presidency; four years earlier, Barack Obama took part in almost as many forums against a much more formidable field.

The Republican nominee lost, despite mediocre conditions in the country, because of his own political inadequacies -- remember his idea for self-deportation of undocumented immigrants and his gaffe about the 47 percent of non-taxpaying loafers. In addition, the Obama campaign was infinitely better than Romney's.

The effect of debates is exaggerated. They usually don't affect the outcome or the basics of a race; often they provide merely predictable posturing and familiar sound bites.

But they're still necessary and useful, especially to weed out the unqualified or unready -- pizza executive Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2012. But the parties shouldn't dictate conditions and terms of debates. They should rely on the marketplace, which Republicans say they revere, minimize the role of journalists or intermediaries and place a premium on getting candidates to question one another.

The sponsors of the first two Republican debates, Fox News and CNN, understandably worry about a huge field of at least 14 candidates, and possibly 16, by this summer.

But both Fox and CNN are making it worse. They propose an A-team debate with 10 (CNN says maybe eight) candidates who score the highest in the average of the five most recent national polls. The remainder will form the B-team, who will debate separately. This ignores a history of candidates who barely register six months before the initial contests where they do well. And this sets false standards: A candidate with, say, a 4.4 percent standing in the latest surveys, is serious, while one with 4.2 percent belongs at the kiddie table.

Newt Gingrich, an unsuccessful candidate last time, criticized this approach, offering an interesting suggestion: The also-rans should be allowed to comment on social media throughout the debate on the A-team's answers. Imagine Trump in that venue.

The best idea, however, was offered by top New Hampshire Republicans who said the CNN and Fox formats would be "unnecessarily narrow and risks eliminating potentially viable candidates based on unreliable national polling that is rarely predictive of primary election outcomes."

Instead, they proposed staging two equal debates with seven or eight candidates apiece; take the top six politicians in the polls and put three in each forum, then randomly assign the others.

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:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net