RNC tries to limit the number of presidential debates. Will it work?

GOP candidates weathered 21 debates in the 2012 presidential primary cycle. But to enforce new limits, the party will have to stick to its rule to bar candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates from future sanctioned debates.

Joel Page/Reuters/File
Republican presidential hopefuls (l. to. r.) former US Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, US Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain pose at the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 campaign at St. Anselm College in Manchester, June 13, 2011.

Of all the things that marked the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, the number of multi-candidate debates that took place from May through December 2011, before a single vote had been cast, were perhaps the most distinctive. During this period, there were some 21 separate debates with all or most of the candidates attending. Given that we are talking about a time when there were as many as nine candidates on the stage at any given time, meaning that individual candidates were often limited to two minutes or less to answer a question, there was a decided lack of substance to any of these debates, as well as several occasions where candidates who were further back in the polls complained that they were being ignored by moderators. And, of course, there was enough cable television inanity to go around, such as when CNN’s John King asked the candidates to choose between Coke and Pepsi, or what kind of pizza they liked the best. By the time the process was over, most reporters, and some of the candidates, were openly mocking the number of debates, and a format that proved to be more about entertainment value and trying to catch candidates in gaffes than anything useful. In the wake of the GOP’s 2012 loss, one of the first reforms that some proposed to was a limit to the number of debates going forward, and that’s exactly what the Republican National Committee is proposing for 2016:

The Republican National Committee announced Friday that it will sanction at least nine presidential primary debates, starting this August in Ohio and continuing through March 2016, with the potential to add three more.

The schedule, obtained first by POLITICO, was rolled out at the RNC’s winter meeting here.

A committee within the RNC and top staffers have been working for nearly a year on an effort to cut the number of debates roughly in half from the 20 held during the 2012 cycle. There have been high-level conversations between party leaders and executives at the nation’s broadcast and cable channels.

To give their push to control the debate process teeth, the party announced Friday that any candidate who participates in a debate that isn’t sanctioned by the RNC will not be allowed to participate in any more sanctioned debates. A question clouding the effort has been whether media organizations and cash-strapped candidates desperate for free airtime would go forward with unofficial debates, undercutting the whole process. But the stiffness of the penalty will probably deter such behavior.

One of the most interesting nuggets of the schedule is that no state gets more than one sanctioned debate. Last time, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida each hosted four debates. Iowa hosted three.

Steve Duprey, who chairs the RNC debate committee – and also happens to be New Hampshire’s representative to the committee – acknowledged pushback from leaders of the early states. But he said it’s worthwhile to improve the overall process.

“New Hampshire is not real thrilled, Iowa isn’t real thrilled, South Carolina isn’t real thrilled,” Duprey said. “But they’ll accept it.”

In any case, here’s the list of “sanctioned” debates:

1. Fox News, August 2015, Ohio

2. CNN, September 2015, Californiaat the Ronald Reagan presidential library

3. CNBC, October 2015, Colorado

4. Fox Business, November 2015, Wisconsin

5. CNN, December 2015, Nevada

6. Fox News, January 2016, Iowa

7. ABC News, February 2016, New Hampshire

8. CBS News, February 2016, South Carolina

9. NBC/Telemundo, February 2016, Florida

Three more are pending:

10. Fox News, March 2016, location TBD

11. CNN, March 2016, location TBD

12. Conservative Media Debate, date TBD, locations TBD

On the surface, I suppose, this seems like a reasonable answer to the issue of exactly how many debates to have during a period when the vast majority of Americans aren’t even paying much attention to the presidential election to begin with. Last time around, the debates started in May and by September we were at the point where there were as many as three or four a month for reasons that nobody could really quite understand. As noted above, the most that many of these debates did was give candidates the opportunity to commit gaffes that, in all honesty, were of only passing relevance when it comes to the question of what kind of president they might be, or whether they even belong on the stage to begin with. More importantly, the other major complaint about the debates during the 2012 debate cycle wasn’t just that there were too many debates but that the vast majority of them occurred long before any of the primaries were scheduled. Since this is when most voters are actually starting to pay attention to the election, one would have thought that there would have been debates when voters were actually voting. Instead, thanks in no small part that there had already been some two dozen debates over the past year, the media didn’t seem all too interested in scheduling new debates, and the public seemed to be sick enough of the process to not really notice the lack of debates among the candidates at a point in time when they might have actually been useful. In that sense, this calender is better in that it schedules most of the debates during the December-through-March time period when voters are actually likely to be paying attention to the process.

All that being said, I have to wonder how well the RNC will be able to do at actually controlling the number of debates. There will undoubtedly be some unsanctioned debates scheduled by media outlets and, candidates being candidates, there will be campaigns willing to participate in them, if only for the free publicity that results from these appearances. When that happens, one has to wonder if the party will really have the fortitude to enforce its ruling that participating in unsanctioned debates means being barred from future sanctioned debates. In such a situation, the party is likely to be the one that looks bad if it tries to keep certain candidates out of debates because they chose to make themselves more available to the public and the media than other candidate. If there ends up being no sanction for participating in unsanctioned debates, of course, than the entire process crumbles and we’re back to the 2012 free for all. So, while I get the sentiment behind the desire to limit the number of debates, and to limit them to a time when the public is actually paying attention, I’m skeptical about whether or not it can actually work in the real world of politics where every candidate is going to be looking for as much free media time as they can get.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/

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