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Two reasons the GOP debate is set up wrong

Written By | Jul 25, 2015

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2015 — With Ohio Gov. John Kasich officially jumping into the race, the expected 2016 Republican primary field is set. The field for the first debate on Aug. 6 remains in flux. As has been widely reported, the debate sponsors will limit participation to the top 10 candidates, to be determined by averages of the most recent polls.

Logistically, the decision makes sense. A debate with 16 participants would be comically disorganized and crowded. There are cat-herders who would pity the moderators forced to play ring master to that circus. And, barring the outbreak of a Three Stooges-esque pie fight, it would make for lousy television, even for a debate.

Yet the plan for this culling has a couple of major problems.

1. The selection method is deeply flawed.

Fox wants the 10 candidates with the best chance of winning the Republican nomination. But recent polls, especially national polls, have suspect methodologies. From erroneous sample selection to poor screening procedures for likely voters, recent surveys have not done a good job of polling voters who are most likely to vote in Republican primaries. This gives an advantage to candidates (such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or reality show star Donald Trump) who start off with higher name recognition.

Read Also: Trump is not the GOP frontrunner

Further, national polling results are most likely to change based on the outcomes of early primaries. If a candidate whose national name recognition registers poorly now goes on to win Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, his or her name recognition will benefit from the ensuing coverage. A voter in Michigan who told a pollster he or she preferred Trump or Bush may take a second look at a candidate who puts up an early set of impressive wins.

But here’s a bigger question: If you wanted to handicap the race, why would you only look at polls? There are so many other factors that determine a candidate’s success or failure.

Getting elected to a high office doesn’t happen by accident. Media attention and name recognition don’t drag people to caucuses and primaries during harsh, nasty winter weather in February and March.

A well-organized campaign does.

Winning an election takes hard, boring work. It requires volunteers who knock on doors, data-driven voter contact and smart grassroots mobilization to drag people out of their daily routines to cast a ballot. Campaigns that do those things well can move their poll numbers. (That’s why candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who aren’t exactly household names yet but have strong organizations behind them – are still ranked among the top tier of candidates.)

Money is important, too. Even for candidates – like Trump – who can self-fund, fundraising demonstrates organizational aptitude. (Super PAC fundraising can be included in this consideration so as not to tip the scales in favor of those candidates who started their official campaigns earlier.) With such a crowded field, fundraising is important to ensure a candidate can stay in the race long enough to win.

A few months back, Red State launched periodic “Power Ranking” to show the state of the race. In addition to public polling, the rankings looked at fundraising, early-state performance and other factors both subjective and objective to assess the strength of each campaign. Some similar ranking system would have been a better idea for Fox than the simple measurement of poll performance.

You wouldn’t declare a baseball team the favorite to win the World Series just because it had great starting pitching; you’d want to see a good bullpen, solid defense and at least some timely hitting, too. They wouldn’t have to be the best at each facet of the game, but they would to be the best overall. Presidential campaigns are no different; to enjoy lasting success in to the end of the grueling primary season, they have to be well-rounded.

2. The very premise is wrong.

The debate committee isn’t necessarily picking the 10 candidates with the best chances to win – but is that even the right way to pick a debate field?

Read also: Why did Martin O’Malley tank so bad?

Since debates are supposed to be about ideas, it would be nice to see intellectual diversity factor into the selection. For example, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and South Carolina Sen. Lyndsey Graham have very different views on foreign policy. Wouldn’t primary viewers be better served by hearing both? Yet Graham, who appears to be in the race for the sole reason of debating this issue, doesn’t look like he’ll be on the dais. Whether you would agree or not, hearing these voices make their case would offer unique and diverse viewpoints.

The optics of the debate stage will matter, too, especially as the Republican Party fights to escape its image as the party of old white guys.

Surely the Republican National Committee is hoping Carly Fiorina makes the cut. Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP field, can attack Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton much more pointedly without worrying about charges of sexism. Further, her time as CEO of a technology company offers a nice contrast to Clinton’s recent comments about Uber and other innovative businesses that are driving the economy in new directions.

Debates as we know them worked great for the days when the primary process was limited to a small number of people. (It’s why they still work for general elections, which tend to only have two candidates.) Back then, raising money and building a base of support was near impossible without an established network of support and multiple opportunities for mainstream media coverage.

Social media (which allow direct recruitment of supporters without the media) and super PACs (which can allow more funds to be raised from fewer people) have allowed more players to enter the game. Our modern political landscape is different. Since that dynamic has changed, clearly the formats used for the primary debates need to change, too.

Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham is a grassroots political consultant and Vice President of Advantage, a voter contact and mobilization firm. He has designed and implemented campaigns merging multiple online and offline tactics for a range of political and advocacy organizations. Eltringham lives in Centreville, Virginia with his wife and their two daughters.