GOP's nagging "clown show" problem: How does it trim down the debate roster?

If 15 or 20 candidates are running, who gets into the debates? We have a couple of suggestions

Published April 30, 2015 5:35PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013.      (AP/Chris Carlson)
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate, July 8, 2013. (AP/Chris Carlson)

RNC chair Reince Priebus thought he had it all figured out when he devised a plan to cut the number of GOP presidential debates roughly in half, from about 20 to 10. Credit him for recognizing that the less exposure voters have to the Republican party's presidential candidates, the better it is for the GOP's general election chances.

The only problem with this plan is that it doesn't solve the core problem with what transpired during the 2012 cycle's clownish debate season: the content of those debates. Mitt Romney easily could have found an opportunity to fit in flubs about "self-deportation" and so forth within a 10-debate schedule, if that's what the right-wing ideological leapfrogging competition demanded of him. It doesn't matter whether the debate is moderated by Chris Matthews or Hugh Hewitt, either. The specific questions that get asked merely serve as jumping-off points for candidates to jabber on about whatever they want. (In a sense, it's easier with Chris Matthews, because you can just scream at him about liberal bias if you're in a jam.)

The competition between candidates will be even more intense this year, amplifying the opportunity for hilarious right-wing soundbites to emerge. Most living humans are considering bids for the Republican presidential nomination this cycle. Or at least 22 humans are, per The Hill's count. If, say, 15 of them end up running, what are the chances of such a battle royale debate producing anything instructive for prospective GOP primary voters? You will have to shout to get any attention whatsoever, and shouting something about, say, a boring tax credit proposal wouldn't exactly boost your chances of getting written up in the morning papers.

The Hill reports that the RNC is trying to develop guidelines for inclusion in GOP debates, set to begin in a few months. If you try to bump out various clowns who may have grassroots energy but stand little chance of winning the nomination, you'll invite criticism about establishment elitism. Then again, you don't want to have Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker up there getting in no-win spats with Ben Carson about Obamacare's historical placement alongside Nazi Germany. But you don't want to exclude Ben Carson because "GOP excludes sole African-American presidential candidate from debate" is not a great headline for the Republican Party. Same deal for Carly Fiorina: it's within the realm of possibility that no one will care about her candidacy, but the Democratic Party will never let them hear the end of it if Carly Fiorina, the one GOP woman running, is omitted from a single debate roster.

The fairest criterion to use is a polling threshold. But in such a crowded field, in which even modest fluctuations can jolt a candidate from 12th to 1st place overnight, what's that number going to be? The RealClearPolitics national polling average right now show 12 candidates polling between 1 and 15 percent. If you set the average at, say, 3 percent, you'd safely discard the Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, and Bob Ehrlich rung, but you'd also be getting rid of people like John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry. They'll always be either hopeless or one debate away from taking the lead for a few weeks, just like everyone else.

The RNC is also considering throwing a fundraising element into the algorithm. But "applying that yardstick," the Hill writes, "even in conjunction with others, would seem to be problematic for a party often portrayed by liberals as having an overly cozy relationship with super wealthy donors." It wouldn't just be the evil, cackling liberals criticizing the "buy your way into the debates" model. Again: conservatives are always looking for chances to criticize the establishment, and there's nothing more establishment than the RNC sticking up its nose at candidates who haven't raised enough money.

The RNC must be very interested in hearing Salon Dot Com's advice on what to do, so we'll offer it. It should go one of two ways.

The first is to just abandon the pretense that it cares about inclusion or giving grassroots candidates a chance. Announce that the debates will only include Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and tell everyone else to DEAL WITH IT, YOU'RE NOT GOING TO WIN THE NOMINATION AND IF YOU DID IT WOULD BE A DISASTER. GROW UP.

Another would be to run with the battle royale idea and turn it fully over to producers of entertainment. There can be "rounds" within the debates. A Frank Luntz-organized focus group can select every 20 minutes which several candidates get eliminated. Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina didn't register well with this group of likely voters? Eliminate them! Trap doors open beneath their lecterns and they fall into dunk tanks filled with sharks. Twenty minutes later: No one cares about you, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie! They are loaded into cannons and blasted into outer space. A couple more rounds and at the end, Reince Priebus comes out to give each of three lucky candidates a rose, and only they will get to participate in the next debate.

Just a suggestion.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Debates Editor's Picks Establishment Presidential Candidates Reince Priebus Rnc