Keep it tight.

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Trump Goes to War Over Republican 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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The Republican presidential candidates are apparently ready to revolt against the presidential debates. Several of their campaigns are meeting in Washington on Sunday to plan changes. In what's likely an effort to regain control, the Republican National Committee -- which is excluded from Sunday's meeting -- today suspended the February debate on NBC because of complaints about CNBC's handling of the one earlier this week.

All of this is unlikely to end well.

The Washington meeting is being organized by the Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal campaigns -- in other words, the two polling leaders and two candidates who have been relegated to the “kiddie table” debates. It’s easy to see why their interests coincide, and why that’s likely to cause problems.

Trump and Carson -- far ahead in the national polls going into Wednesday’s debate -- have a joint interest in keeping other candidates from emerging from the pack to challenge them. They should want formats that diminish Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, who currently lead the rest of the pack and are presumably the likeliest threats.

Graham and Jindal, meanwhile, want to have equal status with the 10 candidates in the main debate. If they win that, it will take a bit of attention away from each of the prime-time candidates. So what’s good for Graham and Jindal is good for Carson and Trump, because it gives each of the others less of a chance to break out.

All the candidates have been invited to the meeting. Rubio, Bush and Cruz should want to reduce the number of people taking part (as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein suggests), allowing them to share a smaller prime-time stage with Trump and Carson and setting themselves apart from polling stragglers such as Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie. On the other hand, Huckabee and Christie will want to maintain a system that treats them (but not Graham and Jindal) as major contenders.

There are other issues. Besides the length of the debate, there is dissension over the time allotted to each candidate and over the composition of the panels asking questions. Also, should there be opening and closing statements? Those who believe they do best in free-flowing discussion will oppose those who feel they benefit from formal statements. The ones who consider themselves well-versed in policy might prefer “neutral” journalists, while others might be more comfortable with Republican-aligned media asking the questions.

Trump and perhaps to some extent Carson might be able to use their popularity to get the others to agree to changes. After all, if those two decided to skip the official events, the audience would probably plummet, and a rogue debate organized by the polling leaders might overshadow the “real” thing. Would Rubio, Bush and Cruz risk that? 

For its part, the Republican National Committee can't do much about any of this. It has tried to impose its conditions by saying that any candidate who appears in an unsanctioned debate would be prohibited from appearing in future debates. But if half the field does it -- including the polling leaders -- is the RNC really going to enforce that rule?

There is simply no good and fair debate format for a 15-candidate field, especially one that has stubbornly refused to organize itself into a widely accepted structure. Originally, I urged the RNC to take a more active role instead of leaving format decisions up to the networks, but that wouldn’t have helped much.

Maybe this will sort itself out as candidates drop out. But even if we lose one or two more contenders in the next few weeks, most of the field is likely to stay put through the Iowa caucuses.  

The best news for Republicans? None of this will have any effect on the general election, and a faulty debate format isn't likely to lead the party into nominating the wrong candidate. Still, we can learn about where the candidates believe they stand and what they think their strengths -- and weaknesses! -- are by seeing what the want.

  1. Ted Cruz, for one, might prefer mainstream media moderators -- just so he can continue to score points by attacking them. 

  2. In addition to being fair, a format must be acceptable to the broadcasters, too. Several have suggested two equal-sized debates with a random draw, but the networks are going to want Trump in prime time no matter what.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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