Fox gets three (two on Fox News, one on Fox Business), CNN gets two, and CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNBC get one apiece. MSNBC gets some magic beans. Of note: The NBC debate will be co-sponsored by Telemundo and will be held in Florida in February 2016, shortly before the primary. If Jeb Bush is still in the race by then, that’s his time to shine. Lotttt of pressure on McConnell and Boehner, meanwhile, to do something on immigration reform by then so that the remaining GOP candidates have something to tout to Latino voters tuning in.
If this seems like conspicuously fewer debates than we’re used to after the last two presidential cycles, that’s because it is. And there’s a reason for it.
1. Fox News, August 2015, Ohio
2. CNN, September 2015, California
3. CNBC, October 2015, Colorado
4. Fox Business, November 2015, Wisconsin
5. CNN, December 2015, Nevada
6. Fox News, January 2016, Iowa
7. ABC News, February 2016, New Hampshire
8. CBS News, February 2016, South Carolina
9. NBC/Telemundo, February 2016, Florida
Interesting to see Wisconsin on the menu. That’s the only state on the list that’s home to a top-tier candidate in Scott Walker but not home to an important Republican primary. Reince Priebus is also a Wisconsin native. Maybe the chairman helped engineer a little home-field advantage for one of his favored candidates. Or maybe the RNC, sensing a real chance that Walker could be the nominee, wants to do something early to signal that Wisconsin (and its neighbors) will be in play this time.
There were 20(!) primary debates in 2012 and 23(!!) in 2008. Why nine this time? Well, the number could rise to 12: Per WaPo, the RNC’s already considering three more, one on Fox News in March 2016, another on CNN the same month, and a “conservative media debate” at some point. They’re hoping the race will be over by the time of those first two debates but the third seems likely, if only to appease the party’s base. There are also bound to be some debates held that aren’t sanctioned by the RNC, like, say, a “tea party debate.” The RNC considered passing a rule last year that would disqualify a candidate from all RNC-sanctioned debates if he agreed to participate in an unsanctioned one, but I haven’t heard anything about that rule today. And no wonder: Imagine the venom aimed at the party’s establishment if Ted Cruz or Rand Paul took part in a “tea party debate” and then got kicked offstage at the big RNC debate right before Iowa. The Committee may hate its base but it can’t be too obvious in showing it.
So yeah, there’ll be some unsanctioned debates but we’ll still probably end up with many fewer than we’ve had recently. That’s by design. The RNC favors establishment candidates, and the big advantage that establishment candidates enjoy is their ability to outraise and outspend the party’s more conservative contenders. The more free airtime you give Ted Cruz and Rand Paul by holding extra debates, the more you neutralize the advantage that Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney will have in carpet-bombing Cruz and Paul with attack ads. Fewer debates means fewer opportunities for conservative insurgents to damage the centrist favorites before a big audience. And the bigger field this time amplifies that effect. For the first four debates at least, I suspect, you’re looking at no fewer than 12 candidates onstage: Bush, Romney, Christie, Walker, Paul, Cruz, Jindal, Perry, Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, and possibly Rubio. During the last two cycles you usually only had nine or 10 onstage at most, and at least half of those were lightweights. No lightweights in the group I just named; even Carson and Santorum could be players to some degree in the Iowa caucuses. Assuming the debates run three hours, we’re probably looking at around 140 minutes or so of actual chitchat apart from the commercials. That’s a little more than 10 minutes apiece for each candidate to speak assuming the airtime is distributed evenly, which it won’t be. The “electable” centrists will probably receive a little more attention. All of that being so, there’s pressure on most of the field to expand their airtime by participating in unsanctioned debates too. Makes me wonder if we won’t end up with a number close to 20 after all.
I fully expect Romney to participate in all of the sanctioned ones at least. Chuck Todd and Hugh Hewitt spent a few minutes last week kicking around the idea that he would skip the debates this time on grounds that he’s been there, done that, and everyone knows what he stands for. No way, I think. It would look arrogant for one thing, as if Romney expects to carry over his support from 2012 without having to work for it. The rest of the field will destroy him for that presumptuousness. It would also screw up his attempt to “rebrand” himself, or whatever Team Mitt is calling the latest Romney messaging revamp. Supposedly he’s going to run to Jeb Bush’s right on immigration and Common Core while also pitching himself as, er, the anti-poverty candidate in the field. Gonna be hard to do that while forfeiting multiple free opportunities to address many millions of primary voters. He’ll be there. And he’ll be hammered savagely by his rivals, especially in the first couple of debates when he’s likely to still be polling well based on name recognition. Two words, my friends: Traffic goldmine.
Exit question: Who will the panelists be for the “conservative media debate”?