The ever-increasing number of Republican candidates running for president is posing a serious challenge for the party as it plans 2016 debates.
The conundrum itself isn’t complicated. Too many candidates risk making the debates circus-like, where the stage is crowded with candidates and each gets mere minutes to speak. On the other hand, excluding candidates inevitably enrages their supporters and creates controversy for the GOP and its television network partners.
“One Republican involved in the process said a 90-minute forum with 10 candidates would offer each candidate only four to five minutes, after subtracting commercials and moderator time,” The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin wrote in a story published Wednesday.
There could easily be more than 10 serious candidates running by next year. At the moment, there are six announced candidates who probably expect to be included in the debates: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).
Other candidates who have publicly mulled campaigns include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), businessman Donald Trump, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), former ambassador John Bolton, former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), former Sen. Jim Gilmore (R-Virginia), and Rep. Pete King (R-New York).
And that’s not even counting some of the far less-known GOP candidates like Mark Everson, the former IRS commissioner who announced his presidential campaign in March. A perennial candidate named Jack Fellure is also apparently in the mix.
According to a Washington Post story published Tuesday, no Republican presidential primary debate has had more than 10 candidates. With the lack of a clear front-runner, it would appear to be incredibly difficult to reduce the current GOP field to that number without significant backlash.
The potential candidates who are at the most risk of being excluded are already warning they won’t be silent if the debates — one of the best tools for candidates to raise name recognition and broaden their appeal — exclude them.
“There would be so much outrage if they didn’t start inclusively,” John Brabender, a Santorum strategist, predicted to The Times. “It would look like the party was once again playing arbiter of who they want to be nominee.”
In contrast, the Democratic field is dominated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who only has one notable rival officially in the race: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
There are no easy solutions for the GOP, either. At least a couple of the current long-shot candidates are sitting statewide officials like Graham, Kasich, and Jindal. Others, like Huckabee and Santorum, are prominent former officials who have outperformed expectations in past presidential races. And winnowing the field could produce backlash over diversity issues if minority candidates are not allowed to participate.
“Cutting out lower-ranked aspirants such as former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would make the first debate of the 2016 season a tableau of men, most of them white — not the image the party wants to promote as it faces an increasingly diverse electorate,” The Post’s Mattea Gold wrote.
Both The Times and The Post floated the idea of mixing polling with other indicators of support, such as fundraising, for debate criteria. However, it’s unclear if that would produce a desirable outcome. Indeed, Martin wrote that one Republican National Committee official said “its members had discussed ceding the decision entirely” to Fox News, which hosts the first debate.
“Every time you think you’ve come up with a fair and equitable way,” a person familiar with debate discussions told Gold, “there’s a reason why that scenario falls apart.”
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