And, as of today, Donald Trump will stand center stage while the likes of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former senator Rick Santorum, who won 11 states in the 2012 race, will not make it onstage.
That is because of the rules instituted by Fox News for that first debate, to be held in Cleveland; only the top 10 in the five most recent national polls will make the cut.
Curt Anderson, a consultant to Jindal’s campaign, says that the rules are arbitrary and ridiculous. “The Republican Party should be looking forward instead of backward — and seeking every opportunity to feature its roster of excellent candidates, rather than trying to find ways to constrict the field,” Anderson wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week. “The voters will do that, as is their prerogative. The simple truth is that competitive primaries usually make a party stronger, not weaker.”
Anderson is not, obviously, a neutral party in this because Jindal almost certainly won’t make the Cleveland debate stage Aug. 6. His self-interest, though, does not render his points invalid.
Anderson is absolutely right that voters are paying almost no attention to the race right now, and that gives candidates who are better known a leg up. (See Trump, Donald.) And, he is also right that using national polls to judge relevance is not the best measuring stick, given that the primary and caucus process is conducted state by state.
But I still don’t think it makes sense to put all 16 candidates on a single stage. Why? Simply put: logistics.
The Cleveland debate will last two hours. Let us allot 15 minutes for the questions to be asked and for follow-ups by the moderators. That leaves 105 minutes of talking by the candidates. Simple math means that if the time is split evenly between the 10 people who make the stage — it won’t be, because Trump will be onstage — each will have a little more than 10 minutes to talk. Ten minutes to answer a variety of questions on economic, social and foreign policies. Ten minutes to respond to pointed attacks from opponents. Ten minutes to try to sell yourself to the Republican electorate as the person who should represent the party in the 2016 race.
Now, let us bump the field up to 16 candidates as Anderson advocates. Again, dividing the time equally, each of the 16 would have about six minutes to do everything I described. To do all of that in 10 minutes is a herculean political task. To do it all in six minutes is impossible — particularly when you consider that every one of the lesser-known candidates will be trying to climb over one another for a shred more of attention.
We’ve seen this movie before. In 2012, there were about 400 Republican presidential debates. The stage was so packed for the vast majority of them that it was impossible to really take anything substantive from the spectacle. Candidates were reduced to things such as lightning rounds and raising their hands (without the ability to say anything) to indicate support or opposition to a specific proposal.
To be clear: Those format tweaks made for some great TV and hilarious Twitter commentary — two things I love. What they didn’t do was, if we are being honest, inform voters about the choices before them. The debates were more entertainment than education. Way more.
A debate with 16 participants just doesn’t work. It’s not feasible. That’s a hard reality if you are in the 11th spot or, in Jindal’s case, in 13th. But this is politics, not kiddie soccer. (Fix Jr. plays in a league with three kids on each side and no goalies. Also, they don’t keep score.) You cannot like the rules. But they are the rules for a reason — they allow at least the possibility of the debates fulfilling their intended purpose of educating the electorate about the candidates.
The best way to prove the debate rules wrong? Build some momentum independent of the debates. Or, a la Kasich, start spending money on TV ads and watch your numbers begin to rise. In short, act — and hope people start to move for you.