GOP's Debate Plight: Big Cast, Small Stage
Presidential primary debates pose a challenge for the GOP this year: How can Republicans showcase their wide, diverse bench of candidates without having them literally trip over each other on stage?
It’s an unprecedented problem, as neither party has had more than 10 candidates on a primary debate stage, and it comes after the Republican National Committee made a concerted effort to limit the number of debates this cycle so as not to host another 2012 “dog and pony show.”
But it’s actually a good problem to have—for the party and, in the early going, for the candidates themselves.
“It’s a very unique circumstance this year, as we have an abundance of riches,” says Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director. “Now we are trying to figure out how you set a reasonable bar, because physically you can only fit so many people on the stage.”
Among the more than dozen Republican candidates seriously considering a run for the White House, two are Latino (and another is fluent in Spanish), one is African-American, one is Indian-American, and another is a woman. In an election cycle in which the party is desperately trying to broaden its general election coalition, the debate stage should deliver some good and needed PR.
Several of the candidates are newcomers to the presidential stage. A program that gives them time to say little more than their names and why they are running could limit their opportunities to falter. And for second-time candidates hoping the debates offer some kind of redemption, a crowded stage and limited time might help to mitigate risk.
“Candidates can blunt disadvantages by debate performances,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s some opportunity in the limited amount of time” because the candidates are constrained to outline clearly and concisely what they want their audience to hear.
The RNC and the network hosts of the initial debates—FOX News and CNN—hope to iron out requisites over the next several weeks to give enough time for candidates to understand and meet the threshold by the first debate, slated for Cleveland in August. Polling, fundraising, campaign activity and early state presence, among other measures, are being considered in setting the criteria. Establishing a minimum polling point could sideline some candidates the party might be interested in showcasing, including Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal, who are polling at or around just 1 percent.
“In 2012, the field was thinner. In 2016, it looks like we will have more than a dozen people who are serious and accomplished and plausible presidents,” says Henry Goodwin, spokesman for the American Future Project, a political group backing Jindal. “The RNC should be willing to rework its debate guidelines to accommodate this larger field. If they don’t, I have a feeling the networks and the candidates will do it without them.”
Fiorina, who announced her campaign last week, has said she is confident her polling numbers will improve now that she is officially in the race. She has established a presence in the early states, with a variety of campaign-like stops. Her absence from the debate stage full of men could have negative consequences for the party, especially as it seeks to improve its numbers among women. Fiorina has also established herself as an effective counter to Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, whom Republicans have been united in attacking.
At this point, the GOP field includes at least 14 official and possible contenders, and the list may grow.
In addition to Fiorina, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee joined the 2016 fray, bringing the official candidate roster to six, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul.
Jeb Bush and Scott Walker are expected to announce their campaigns within the next couple of months. Rick Perry will announce by the beginning of June, and Rick Santorum is making his plans known by the end of this month. Jindal, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and John Kasich are also seriously considering a presidential run.
By August, the field will solidify, as candidates have an incentive to make their bids official by the first debate. That could help eliminate people like Donald Trump and other less serious candidates from the stage. But figuring out the best criteria and the right format to host the large number of candidates has so far eluded the party and the networks. “It really is that challenging” to create standards “that are fair and open,” says Spicer, who noted that the network hosts carry more weight in the decision process.
With such a large field, it’s difficult to see how the early debates will produce much substance beyond introductory statements.
“Certainly, it’s much more difficult for any candidate to make a positive impact with that many candidates on the stage—you’re not having a debate anymore, what you’re having is a spelling bee,” says Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid.
“What makes it even more challenging is different candidates enter the race with different objectives, which means they have different goals on the stage,” says Schnur, who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “The problem for the real candidates is they tend to get overshadowed by the fake ones. This isn’t a new problem, but the sheer number of candidates makes it a much more challenging one.”
That sheer number is going to require the hosts to be creative. Schnur jokingly suggested a format similar to the NCAA tournament, with regional debates ending in a final four matchup.
Jamieson suggested a format that breaks candidates into groups and limits the questions each group gets to address. Or, she said, moderators might ask candidates to raise their hands to answer certain questions, or they could limit discussion by asking if any candidate has an answer that differs substantially from ones already given.
While the party and networks mull over the formatting, candidates are starting to think of ways they can stand out and gain media attention to boost their poll numbers, whether it’s identifying a truly impactful opening line, a killer strike against an opponent, or a policy proposal that bucks the party line.
The early primary debates are a chance for candidates to introduce themselves to a voting public that is just starting to pay attention, if at all. Equally important, if not more important, the debates serve as a way for candidates to assure party operatives and donors of their viability. Collectively, they also promote the party and its platforms.
The early debates are “showcasing the philosophy of the party,” says Jamieson. “The public learns what Democrats and Republicans stand for by looking at the whole Democratic field and the whole Republican field and see they all agree on this or that.”
Primary debates can also been a boon or a downfall for a campaign. Newt Gingrich was helped to a South Carolina primary win after successful debate performances boosted his numbers and viability. Rick Santorum proved to be something of a scrapper in his debate performances, and that helped propel him. Tim Pawlenty’s early debate performances were characterized by missed political moments that signaled he didn’t have the horsepower to succeed.
Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” debate moment in 2013 was a devastating capstone to a downward spiraling campaign. This cycle, the debates could serve as Perry’s political redemption. The risks are higher for him, as supporters have acknowledged that if he makes any mistakes, he’s finished.
The problems of a crowded stage, however, don’t seem to be concerning enough for candidates to skip any of the early debates. Doing so could signal arrogance, if you’re a leading contender, or lack of commitment if you’re among the lower tiers. Plus, many of the debates are held in key early states or general election swing states, so candidates skip at their own peril.
Frontrunners may be most interested in participating. "Having more candidates on stage favors the frontrunners and inhibits the ability of the up-and-comers or second-tier candidates to get the time they are going to need to have a big moment," says one GOP strategist familiar with the process. On the other hand, if there is a clear leader, the others have more opportunities to attack.
The crowded field conundrum isn’t limited to the debate stage. Even before then, candidates must make good impressions and figure out ways to distinguish themselves at summits and forums hosted by early states and political groups, as well as at campaign events in general.
The first debates, however, offer a broader audience and a difficult kind of field test. The big question is, “Can performance in a debate catalyze a broader reaction in the news media that’s favorable to you?’” says John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University and co-author of The Gamble, a book about the 2012 campaign.
“If it’s a very crowded stage, how do you stand out in that context?” Sides says. “It’s not clear you can unless you’re extremely good or extremely bad. And few candidates are either of those things.”