In the wake of last week’s CNBC debate, Republican presidential candidates are clamoring for changes to the debate program going forward, and they have a point.
The Republican National Committee spent the last two years overhauling the primary-debate schedule in anticipation of a GOP field that looked like 2012’s. The reduction in the number of debates, the nationwide distribution, and the counterbalancing conservative-media presence were designed to ensure that a frontrunner would not have to advance to the general election badly bloodied — something that the RNC believes hurt Mitt Romney in the last cycle. In the current field — crowded, diverse, entirely unlike that of four years ago — those reforms have proven detrimental.
In a large field, the obvious preference should be for more debates with fewer candidates. The arbitrary division of the field into a crowded “main stage” event and a tiny “undercard” creates unnecessary conflict offstage, as candidates complain about the criteria for qualifying, and onstage, as they jostle each other just to be heard. Even in CNN’s three-hour debate, most candidates spoke for less than 12 minutes. Meanwhile, the undercard debate is reduced to a footnote. Smaller debates with randomly allocated participants would give candidates more speaking time, pit them against different sets of opponents, and give low-polling candidates a chance to make their case.