NEW YORK -- The advent of American-style TV debates as part of the British electoral landscape proved hugely popular during the 2010 and 2015 general election campaigns. Yet for broadcasters, organising an event that can have such a decisive impact on the result (the 2010 success of the Liberal Democrats started with a strong debate performance by Nick Clegg) is a difficult exercise, balancing fairness to the candidates while providing a service to the electorate -- all while creating a watchable spectacle.
Witness David Cameron’s machinations before the 2015 election in which the prime minister laboured to participate in the fewest debates with the most possible candidates. As the incumbent, he had the most to lose by either making a mistake or inadvertently bestowing statesmanlike parity on his rivals. The opposite ran true for the non-incumbents, whose natural inclination was to target the prime minister in the hope of gaining an imprimatur of legitimacy.
If dragging Cameron into a studio to face his adversaries was a testing task for the British broadcasters, that obstacle seems trite compared to the brouhaha engulfing the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 presidential election, scheduled for Cleveland, Ohio on August 6th.
The debate is being produced by a partnership of Fox News, Facebook and the Republican Party with the broadcaster deciding the best format would be to limit the number of candidates to 10. A second debate organised by CNN with the same format is scheduled for September. Unfortunately, there are currently 17 Republicans vying for the nomination, the largest presidential primary field in the history of the Party. So who makes the cut?
Fox News and CNN plan to use an average from five major national polls ahead of the debates. Unfortunately, polls are often wrong, particularly with some candidates polling similarly low numbers. Also, early polls tend to favour candidates with better name recognition. As such, the 10 candidates on stage in Ohio may not be the best 10 candidates in the Republican field.
Some are guaranteed a place on stage due to their consistent high polling. Businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will, short of a meltdown in the next two weeks, be at the debate.
Ted Cruz, who has suffered most from the Kraken-like emergence of Trump, is still likely safe. Trump’s nativist siren song has enchanted the party’s populist wing, a role formerly occupied by the Texas senator. Yet Cruz is polling high enough to not miss out. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, however, are in peril should a rival candidate surge.
Even if those 10 are the final selection, some heavyweight candidates will miss out, including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who came second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary race, winning 11 states. Ohio Governor John Kasich (whose state hosts the debate) would also sit on the bench, alongside Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki.
Critics, including Santorum, have complained about the “arbitrary” nature of the 10-person cut off, which could have far-reaching consequences for the nomination and even the Presidency. Those candidates who do make the cut will benefit from huge national exposure not only to prospective donors but also to voters in states the elect the Republican nominee early. Exclusion from the first two debates will, in effect, smother candidacies in their crib.
This has pushed some candidates to spend precious campaign dollars trying to secure enough support just to appear at the debate. Other aspirants – Graham and Perry – have turned on frontrunner Trump, hoping to build their profile by attacking the playground bully. Some have used the media to call for a rethink of the format, including Jindal, who argued in the Wall Street Journal that “all 16 candidates” should debate. Or as Graham brusquely reflected on the selection criteria, "It sucks."
The Republican National Committee hatched a plan to limit the 2016 primary race to just nine televised events hoping of avoid the exhaustive 2012 schedule in which candidates bloodied each other over 22 debates. The longer debate schedule gave Democrats time to organise, while leaving little more than a Romney Husk by the time he emerged the eventual Republican nominee.
As RNC Chairman Reince Priebus reflected after the 2012 defeat, "While we were playing footsie debating each other 22 times, they [the Democrats] were spending $100 million on technology."
The move to limit the debates was designed to help Republican candidates with the aim of recapturing the presidency. However, by handing control of the debate mechanics to the broadcasters who, for production reasons have limited the number of participants, the RNC may well have distorted the democratic process, while inadvertently intensifying the internecine bloodshed.
Having reality TV star Trump and conservative author Carson on the stage makes for great TV. Yet having them ahead of senators and governors dilutes the Republican field. Also, unlike the British debates in April, which boasted three female participants, American voters will not be given a chance to hear the only woman in the Republican race, former Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Fiorina. As one of the lesser-known and lesser-funded candidates, a good debate performance could help the impressive Texan break out into the mainstream, while giving the field at least a whiff of diversity. That is unlikely to happen.
Yet despite the criticism, Fox News and CNN have shown no inclination to adjust the format. As Fox News Executive Vice President of News Michael Clemente told Bloomberg earlier this month: "National polls are the traditional, time-tested yardstick by which presidential hopefuls have long been measured and remain the fairest, most objective and most straight-forward metric for gauging the viability of these candidates."
And why should they adjust the format? They are in the ratings business not the democracy business and will do whatever creates the most compelling TV. The problem rests with the RNC, which has done nothing to force a compromise. As Curt Anderson, a consultant to Jindal’s campaign, recently noted: “The Republican Party should be looking forward instead of backward — and seeking every opportunity to feature its roster of excellent candidates, rather than trying to find ways to constrict the field.”