I have fond memories of watching the Republican primary debates in 2012 (who can forget moments like Rick Perry’s “oops” or Mitt Romney’s endorsement of “self-deportation”?), and 2016 promises to be bigger, better, and wackier than ever, at least on the Republican side.
We’ll be seeing old favorites like Mike Huckabee, Perry, and Rick Santorum, dynastic successors like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, and an outlandish buffet in Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump that will make Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich look tame by comparison. And with no obvious frontrunner, the stakes will be higher than ever.
Unfortunately, spoilsports at FOX News and CNN are already trying to kill the fun. In an effort to avoid packing people on the stage like sardines in a can, network executives have said that they’ll be culling the field using national polling averages to allow only the most viable candidates onstage.
History, however, suggests this will be a failure on its face. At this time in 2011, Gingrich, Santorum, and Ron Paul, the candidates who eventually mounted the most serious challenges to Romney, languished at the bottom of the polls, behind candidates like Bachmann, Perry, and Cain. And in 2007, Mike Huckabee and Paul were cellar-dwellers, far behind ultimately less-successful candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. My point is that polls this far out from the election have only a vague relation to who will actually have a shot at winning the nomination. To use them as criteria for entrance to the debates shows a willful ignorance of history.
It also shows an ignorance of statistics. As Politico’s Larry Sabato recently pointed out, the large Republican field, along with the polling margin of error, means that seven or more candidates are in a statistical tie. Trying to distinguish between Perry and Santorum, both of whom are at 2.0 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, is absurd. John Kasich, at 1.5 percent, and Bobby Jindal, at 1.3 percent, are in the same boat. It’s arbitrary, and quite frankly crazy, to decide who debates and who doesn’t based on minuscule and statistically insignificant differences.
The networks’ concern, however, is a fair one. With limited time and a crush of candidates, it will be harder than ever for the debates to be substantive, and for voters to get to know each candidate. But there is a better approach, an outside-the-box idea that would generate considerable public interest in the debates, and allow every candidate to put their ideas forward. The Republican presidential debates should be a single-elimination, one-on-one debate tournament.
Using national polling averages, candidates would be seeded, similar to March Madness, using the current national averages. Each head-to-head matchup would be 30 minutes, which means a network could probably have four of them in a night. Winners would be determined by online contributions to the Republican National Committee, made in the name of one candidate or the other, in the 24 hours after the debate ended.
This would be a huge win for the RNC, which would raise tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates throughout the cycle. And the mano-a-mano competitive tournament style would generate huge public interest in sports-crazed America. News outlets, or the RNC itself, could run bracket-prediction competitions, with the winners getting to attend the final debates, and highlights from the debates would get far more play on the news and on social media.
But most importantly, these debates would allow every candidate to have at least one shot at making their case to the American people. They would allow candidates to talk about issues, because with only two candidates on stage at a time, there’d be no need to grab for attention by saying the most bombastic thing possible.
And of course they would be a ton of fun. Many more voters would watch the debates with this setup, and they would turn the Republican Party’s biggest weakness — 17 candidates and counting — into a strength. At a time when the Democratic Party is headed towards a coronation, the Republicans’ cutting edge excitement and vitality would be an interesting contrast. Republicans believe that if more Americans knew what they stand for, they would win again. A nationally televised debate tournament among the candidates would give them the chance to prove it.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins, 20, is a student at Bates College and a Democratic Town Committee member from West Hartford. He can be reached on Facebook
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