No one quite knows what the first Republican debate will look like, who exactly will be onstage, or what it means that Donald Trump will be there, too. This, it seems, is the Republican National Committee’s solution to the debacle of the 2012 debates. The problems are memorable: too many primary debates, too many damaging questions from television anchors with liberal biases.
“Most observers concluded after the 2012 election that the packed debate schedule was a disservice to the candidates—and, more important, to the voters,” the RNC’s Sean Spicer wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed ahead of the first debate August 6.
A third group of people expressed their frustration: Republican donors. And so not long after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the RNC began formulating a strategy to fix the process. This features prominently in its autopsy of the 2012 race. The report’s recommendations—fewer debates, starting later in the year prior to the presidential election, and penalties for candidates participating in nonsanctioned debates—became the basis for the RNC’s new rules. The autopsy concluded that making these fixes would put the 2016 nominee in a much better position to win.
But two years later, the RNC’s effort to exert control has failed. The first debate, at least, is likely to be a spectacle defined by the mainstream press. Despite a highly qualified, diverse, and impressive field of Republican candidates, the lack of debates this summer hasn’t allowed many of them to shine. Instead, the loudest voices—really, one loud voice in particular—overshadow the rest.
Donald Trump has dominated the conversation. According to media analyst Andrew Tyndall, half of the 2016 coverage on the three major TV network news broadcasts during June and July was about Trump; CNN, at times, feels like an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign. Without a debate this summer—there had already been two GOP primary debates by August 2011—other candidates have been denied the equal footing of a debate stage to push back against Trump’s one-man self-promotion machine.
This hasn’t stopped the RNC from preemptively declaring victory. In the Journal, Spicer explained the committee had three goals in mind when it sought to reform its presidential primary debate process: introduce “predictability” to the schedule, involve conservative outlets to counter the liberal bias of the mainstream media, and spread the events to locations outside the early primary states. According to Spicer, all three goals have been met.
But the process has been predictable only in the narrowest sense. For months, campaigns have known there would be one debate a month from August to December, then six more debates in the first three months of 2016. Alas, the calendar’s been about the only predictable aspect of the contests. No one guessed there would be this many viable Republican candidates. To accommodate the large field—17 have filed so far—Fox News will air an hour-long 5 p.m. “pre-debate forum” with those candidates who don’t qualify to participate in its primetime debate at 9 p.m. on August 6, while CNN’s September 16 debate will be divided into two back-to-back events, with second-tier candidates battling first.
It’s not been easy to anticipate who will even be allowed in which debates. Fox’s “top 10” cutoff will be determined by the candidates’ average standing in the five most recent, reputable national polls released by 5 p.m. on August 4. Several candidates find themselves floating at the cutoff threshold in the days leading up to the first debate, one poll away from inclusion or exclusion. How’s that for predictability?
On the second goal, the RNC’s been more successful. Three of the upcoming debates will be cosponsored by conservative media outlets and mainstream broadcasters: the CNN debate with Salem Radio, an NBC/Telemundo debate with National Review, and an ABC debate with online startup Independent Journal Review. By having more ideologically aligned journalists asking questions, the party’s thinking goes, there’s a smaller chance the candidates will be caught in unfair “gotcha” moments and a better chance for a substantive discussion of the issues.
Finally, the “goal” to hold more debates outside of the early primary states doesn’t make much sense. The candidates will debate in Ohio, California, Colorado, and Wisconsin before they do so in Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But they’ll all be airing on national TV, with the candidates debating national issues. Spicer argues that having debates outside Iowa, New Hampshire, and the rest “brings more people into the process.” That’s nice, but what does it mean?