Why GOP Debates Should Include All Candidates

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Republican primary voters in 2016 will have the opportunity to choose among a field of candidates that will likely include at least eight current or former state governors, five current or former senators, two national business leaders and a distinguished neurosurgeon. Some might call this an embarrassment of riches; we call it an encouraging sign of the diversity and vitality of the Republican Party and the democratic process.

The candidates all differ in temperament and experience. They differ, too, in their policy priorities and proposals. Some have records to run on; others are newcomers to electoral politics. Our system, beginning with the early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, is a crucible in which their ideas and their characters will be tested.    

Candidate debates are a critical part of this process. In this election cycle, the Republican National Committee has set the number of debates at 12 and determined the debate sponsors and schedule. Time will tell whether this decision was a good one. But what is undoubtedly a mistake is to limit the number of candidates who can participate in the debates based on a snapshot of national or state poll numbers at a given time in the race. 

We speak from experience. In 2011, the American Principles Project co-sponsored a candidate forum in South Carolina in which Republican hopefuls were questioned by Princeton professor Robert George (our founder), Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Steve King on issues of paramount importance to conservative voters. We limited the number of candidates based on their standing in the national polls at the time. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain, both of whom were out of the race within a few months, were invited; former Sen. Rick Santorum, who went on to win the Iowa caucus and emerge as the main challenger to eventual nominee Mitt Romney, was not.   

In fact, Santorum was excluded from several early debates in 2011 because of his low standing in the polls. But grassroots campaigns like Santorum’s rarely register high levels of support in early national or statewide polls, which are reflections of name identification more than on-the-ground support. Conservatives in particular have a stake in ensuring that the candidates they support, often through extensive on-the-ground networks of activists, are not at a disadvantage because they lack the early name recognition of better-known candidates. 

It’s true that the large number of candidates presents some challenges, but voters are ill served by debates that include, for example, a national celebrity such as Donald Trump but exclude Carly Fiorina or Lindsey Graham or Rick Santorum. All declared candidates polling at 1 percent or higher deserve an equal opportunity to make his or her case to the American people. For early debates, that may mean having two forums, with the candidates randomly divided. The field will narrow soon enough. Let that winnowing process be the result of the candidates and their ideas being heard and tested by voters, rather than artificially imposed by debate sponsors and national polls.

Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project and Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

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