Ron Klain has been a a senior debate preparation advisor to every Democratic presidential ticket since 1992. He is an adjunct professor, teaching a course on the history of Presidential debates, at Georgetown University.
Recently, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, “threatened” NBC and CNN with a refusal to permit them to cover GOP presidential primary debates in 2016 if those networks continue with their plans to produce films about Hillary Clinton. Priebus has said he will have the RNC formally vote on the cut-off next week.
Yet Priebus’s warning was reminiscent of the Mel Brooks gag in which a character tries to hold off attackers by pointing a gun at himself and warning, “Don’t move, or I’ll shoot.” There are many reasons the GOP primary debates need the networks a lot more than the other way around.
Unlike general election debates, which are produced by a nonpartisan commission and receive ubiquitous coverage on all major networks, primary debates usually are a joint production of a party affiliate group (e.g., the Republican Party of Iowa) and a media sponsor (e.g., CNBC), and are carried live nationally only by the sponsoring media organization. Under this system, the GOP held 20 debates that got national television coverage in 2012. Exactly half of these debates were broadcast solely by CNN or NBC (or one of NBC’s subsidiaries, like CNBC). Of the other half, seven were carried nationally by a Fox network; only three of the GOP’s 20 debates in 2012 were broadcast nationally by a network other than CNN, NBC, or Fox.
Hence, removing NBC and CNN from the mix for 2016 means either essentially going to an all-Fox debate series for that election cycle or vastly cutting down on the number of primary debates, or both. All these outcomes would be disastrous for the Republicans.
An all-Fox debate series in 2016 would be an unmistakable signal to the country that the Republican debates are an internal conversion only: made by Republicans, talking to Republicans, for the benefit of Republicans. At a time when Republicans desperately need to reach a broader audience, making the debates an intramural affair sends the wrong message.
Moreover, the GOP move would drastically curtail the size of the audience for its debates. While the Republican debates in 2012 set records for viewership for primary debates, those records were in the 6 million to 8 million viewer range — a trivial number compared with the 50 million to 80 million viewers who watch the fall general election debates. Cutting off CNN and NBC would be removing two platforms that provided about 60 percent of the debate viewership for Republican primary debates in 2012 — and in the case of NBC, the outlet that provided some of the largest individual debate audiences.
Without NBC or CNN, more of the debates would wind up being carried live on local TV only. This would be counterproductive for the GOP because virtually no voters (outside of that local market) would wind up seeing the entire debate; they would be left with only debate “highlights,” which tend to be gaffes, unpleasant exchanges and off-message comments. In addition, in a year when the Republicans are likely to be introducing a new, little-known candidate to the American people, cutting back on the national exposure of that candidate to voters is a mistake, to say the least.
Perhaps what Priebus has in mind, then, is the second choice: Hold fewer debates. Indeed, Republican candidates complained bitterly in 2012 about having “too many” debates in the primaries. And Priebus has generally been positive about GOP strategist Mark McKinnon’s debate “reform” plan, which has as its cornerstone having fewer primary debates in 2016.
Again, this is incredibly wrongheaded for the Republicans. Indeed, the two things that gave the GOP its biggest boost in the drive to win the White House in 2012 came from the sheer number of the Republican primary debates that year.
First, the multiple debates exposed Rick Perry’s weakness as a candidate and spared the GOP from nominating someone who would have been destroyed in the fall campaign. When Perry entered the GOP race in August 2011, he became an immediate front-runner and a dominating force in the Republican field. What undid Perry was not just one his infamous “oops” gaffe, — which took place in an NBC-sponsored debate — but instead, a series of mistakes, debate after debate. With fewer debates, Perry might have survived one or two bad performances and won the primaries. Take away NBC and CNN as debate sponsors, and hold fewer debates, and the GOP could have nominated a candidate vulnerable to unraveling in the fall.
Second, it was the trials and tribulations of almost two dozen primary debates that made Mitt Romney into a much better debater in 2012. This is a common pattern, and one reason the challenger almost always bests the incumbent president in the fall debates: The challenger has had a season of live debate practice in the primaries; the incumbent arrives at debate night in October with four years of rust. If Mitt Romney had debated only five or six times in the primary (instead of 20-plus), would he have been as sharp or skilled as he was against President Obama in the first general election debate? Romney’s win that night was the high-water mark for his candidacy — a success that owed much to Romney’s improvement over the course of the lengthy primary debate season. If that “pre-season” had been shorter, easier and lighter — as Republicans now want to make it — who knows how Romney would have done in the fall?
In the end, Priebus’s threat to remove the debates from the networks that gave the Republicans the most visibility in 2012 and shift to a 2016 primary season that has fewer debates, seen by fewer people, on fewer outlets, would hurt not only the Republican candidates but also the American voters, who benefit from seeing the candidates more often and earlier. We will soon see if Priebus’s threat winds up being a clumsy bluff or a ham-handed political blunder.