Will new rules make GOP debates more combative?

The number of GOP presidential hopefuls, combined with just-announced rules, may turn the initial debates into an elbows-out scrabble, at least for those near the bottom of the polls.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, speaks at the Georgia Republican Convention, May 15, 2015, in Athens, Ga.

The upcoming Republican presidential debates look like they’re going to be a lot of fun. Why? One big reason is obvious: The GOP has a deep field of qualified candidates for 2016. We can’t wait to see Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz discuss the Iraq War, or Marco Rubio and Scott Walker question each other’s position on immigration.

But another huge factor deals with process. The number of hopefuls combined with just-announced rules may turn the initial contests into an elbows-out scrabble, at least for those near the bottom of the polls.

First, the stakes: Primary debates are important. That’s less true for general-election debates, which tend to be a tug of war between two candidates of relatively equal political skill and strength. But primary debates occur at the beginning of the campaign season. The issues are less formed. Some candidates aren’t well known. So the back-and-forth on the TV screen does increase voters’ knowledge about national problems. It changes their views on candidates’ characters and can alter their vote.

Would Newt Gingrich have won the South Carolina primary in 2012 without his adroit debate performances? No, he would not. And there will be plenty of people vying to be this cycle’s Newt Gingrich.

But that sort of breakout performance might be more difficult this time around. The sheer number of candidates will limit the amount of airtime each individual can command. And the rules will kick out some who insist they’re viable candidates.

Fox News, which will hold the first debate on Aug. 6, will restrict the stage to the top 10 candidates, as measured by an average of national polls. CNN, which holds the second debate on Sept. 16, will use a similar cutoff – though it will also hold a second session later for those who don’t make the main field.

The problem here is obvious if you look at the current poll standings. Donald Trump, billionaire non-serious candidate, would make the debates. John Kasich, serious governor of Ohio and a party establishment favorite, would not.

Rick Santorum, former senator and 2012 candidate, wouldn’t make the debates. Nor would Bobby Jindal, sitting governor of Louisiana, who seems to be running hard. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina would be sitting on the outside, even though he’s a close chum of 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain. Carly Fiorina, the only woman to declare for the GOP field, would be sitting at home.

However, Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, would qualify.

This sort of arbitrary distinction between insiders and outsiders has outraged some Republicans.

“This isn’t about ‘fairness’ for the other candidates; it’s about opportunity for the public to make informed choices,” writes Quin Hillyer at the right-leaning National Review.

The upshot of this will be that those at the bottom of the polls will do everything they can to keep hold of their golden debate ticket. This won’t be limited to the debates themselves: It will also apply to the period leading up to the debates. All the hopefuls will push to be in the top 10 of polling at the beginning of August.

“We’re going to see gimmicks, stunts and every attention-grabbing device the campaigns can think of, all timed to maximize poll standings near the end of July,” writes Bloomberg View political expert Jonathan Bernstein.

Picking fights over narrow policy differences! Accusing other candidates of slights they didn’t really mean! Those things might happen. But we’d guess the most common method used to get attention will be attacking presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as loudly as possible.

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