I’m sure some very smart, well-paid people at Fox News and CNN devised their Republican presidential debate criteria. So why is everyone upset?
The sheer enormity of the field presents obvious logistics problems. Last week’s announcements by Jeb Bush and Donald Trump swelled the field to 12, with four prospects still looming, all of them noteworthy governors, one an instant front-runner.
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, clearly taking his time with strong poll numbers still fueling his buzz, could be joined by Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. That gets us to 16, a crowd that cannot be stretched from wing to wing on an average stage.
I suppose one could borrow risers from a local choir, but the problem is not so much physical crowding as the untenable notion of so many voices elbowing for snappy sound bites.
Both Fox and CNN have landed on 10 as a magic maximum number for a single debate. So what to do with the rest?
Both networks have the same unsatisfactory answer: Banish them to a kiddie table in the form of a separate debate for “lower-tier” candidates.
This is insulting to several candidates, but worst of all, it is insulting to voters whose tastes are atomized across the wide field of hopefuls. Long before any actual vote is cast in any primary, it is ridiculous to allow polls to snuff out thoroughly worthy candidates who might not have the fame or cash of longtime household names.
Of course it’s a long shot for someone at 1 or 2 percent today to vault to the nomination next year. But in a field so big that the top spot hasn’t cracked 15 percent, a strong debate performance could easily vault someone from, say, 11th place to fifth. And if you’re in the top five after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, truly anything can happen.
Some good New Hampshire Republicans have a noble idea of splitting the “top tier” between two debates, filling the remaining lecterns with lower names in the polls.
Not good enough. While it avoids the stigma of the laggards’ lineup, who picks the matchups? I’d pay money to put Lindsey Graham right next to Rand Paul. Do we combine Texans Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, or separate them? Same question for Bush and Marco Rubio. And which lucky group gets Trump?
There is only one solution: two debates, names chosen randomly.
This avoids any manipulation of the groupings, sure to spark suspicions and bad blood. Sure, one debate might be heavier on big names than the other, but who cares? For my money, many candidates toward the back of the pack have been more interesting than some closer to the front.
No matter how the lottery played out, both debates would have huge viewership. Imagine Carly Fiorina mixing it up with Mike Huckabee or Ben Carson. Imagine Bobby Jindal in a gubernatorial back-and-forth with Christie, Kasich or Huckabee? Imagine viewers given the chance to see that some front-runners might not be such great shakes while some lagging behind deserve more attention.
The great likelihood is that the candidates doing well in the polls would remain in the lead. It is a fairly remote prospect that someone far behind gets vaulted into the top tier after a couple of debates.
But it is not out of the question. And with so many candidates bringing such a wide variety of experiences and appeal, it would be a crime to play favorites at this early stage using criteria as flimsy and fluid as summertime poll numbers.
So put the names in a big bowl, and let’s do what’s right.
Mark Davis is a North Texas-based conservative talk show host who regularly writes for the Dallas Morning News. He is on twitter @markdavis. Readers may send him mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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