The first three Republican presidential debates in the 2016 campaign attracted 61 million total viewers, nearly 20 million of whom fell into the 25-to-54 age range that advertisers love. The 2011 Republican debates hit the 61 million viewer mark, too — 13 debates in.
That's a large part of why the GOP candidates feel as though they can sidestep the Republican Party in asking television networks to offer assurances about the makeup of future debates, as The Washington Post reported over the weekend. Another large part of the effort is the inclusion of a candidate who is used to attracting a lot of television viewers and negotiating with networks.
Most of all, though, the contenders gathered in Virginia over the weekend to make demands for a simple reason: The top GOP hopefuls have perhaps even less need for the Republican National Committee and party unity than the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Whoever gets the nomination will be the de facto leader of the GOP — a party that doesn't seem to be interested in being led. We're still some distance from picking the nominee, and a dozen hands are now steering the process.
There's general agreement that the debates meant to guide them to their new leadership haven't gone well, although that agreement was really vocalized only after last week's messy debate on CNBC. (That CNBC is a particularly small arm of a not-particularly-popular-among-conservatives media company certainly played a role in the ensuing outcry.) When they met this weekend to discuss how to improve the debates, though, the campaigns didn't offer concrete solutions to the problems — or, it seems — agree on the problems.
The result of the meeting? The Post's Dave Weigel obtained a draft letter that would be sent to networks hosting debates, a letter that centers on a series of questions that will allow candidates to determine whether they will participate. The only obvious points of agreement are contained in a bulleted section with prohibitions on questions involving hand-raising, allowing candidates to ask one another questions, showing candidates' notes and allowing the temperature in the debate hall to be above 66 degrees. But how candidates respond to the answers they receive is TBD.
There's a question about moderators, but no direct suggestion that moderators hew to particular requirements. (A popular argument, articulated by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on "Good Morning America" on Monday, is that the debates should be moderated by people who "care about the future of the party.") There are questions about format and about candidate interaction. But how the process is substantially changed isn't clear.
Or put another way: The candidates' loosely formed outcry has resulted in a loosely formed opposition.
A lot of insecurity is buried in the list of demands: fear about appearing sweaty, about photos of people's notes moving across the wires, about being the one guy in a photo with his hand raised.
But what Jeb Bush wants and what Marco Rubio wants are only somewhat overlapping — not to mention what Lindsey Graham wants and what Ted Cruz wants. Ben Carson wants no "gotcha" questions — although he received only one question in the CNBC debate, about Costco, that could be fairly framed in that way — and maybe that debates be streamed only online. Donald Trump, we assume, would not go for taking the debates off TV, although he'd like fewer people on-stage, regardless.
The role of the RNC, of course, is to be the impartial arbiter that navigates these things. In the wake of the 2012 election, Priebus and the RNC blamed the chaotic debates and the late Republican convention for damaging Mitt Romney's electoral chances. So this time, they decided to limit the debate calendar and more tightly manage the process. The goal was in part to re-center the party itself in Republican politics. But that refined role also meant that the RNC was as much of a target for the candidates as CNBC over the past week — and because Republican voters view the party and the media skeptically, there was no reason for the candidates to prevent that from happening.
The way in which the RNC has shifted its attitude toward the 2016 cycle is telling. Once, it outlined a pathway for redeeming the GOP's relevance and determined that it would corral the unruly 2012 debate process to help the party. Now, the RNC acquiescing to the anger of leading candidates that hate it, for fear of driving the base even further away.
Priebus and Paul Ryan have the same problem: They're surrounded by squeaky wheels and running very low on grease. For about five years now, the party has operated under the assumption that the angry upstarts were contained to the fringe and not burrowed deeply into the party — an assumption that continues to be proven wrong. Ryan has to try to figure out how to work with an element that drove out House Speaker John Boehner. Priebus has to figure out how to work with an element that scores points off of ignoring him.
Ryan has one advantage over Priebus: At least he is obviously the leader. The Republican presidential nomination process has a dozen leaders, instead of one.
And 61 million people are watching to see what happens.