How Many 2016 Candidates Can the GOP Handle?

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Circus Elephants
Another kind of circus.Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/2010 AFP

With the Republican presidential field bursting with as many as 18 prospective candidates and their first primary debate a mere three months away, the GOP is facing a serious stage-management crisis. Last week, the chair of the Republican National Committee’s 2016 debate committee indicated that they were considering capping the number of candidates onstage to 12 or less, but after some outcry within the party the RNC subsequently tried to walk that back. In previous years, no more than ten candidates have been allowed to participate, though the criteria for inclusion varied from debate to debate. Most often, candidates have had to meet some kind of national polling threshold, but one of the big risks this year is that exclusions along those lines could highlight the GOP’s demographic issues if non-white-male candidates like Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or Bobby Jindal don’t make the cut.

Another issue in this cycle is that the RNC has reduced the number of sanctioned debates from 20 to 9, mainly to limit the sideshow flak that front-runners have to endure as they prepare for the general election. So after trimming commercials and other fat from the broadcasts, there may only be nine 70-minute blocks of speaking time split across however many candidates end up onstage. If that’s not enoughand as a result primary voters can’t coalesce around a single candidateit’s possible the GOP could end up having to choose its nominee with a brokered convention.

So far, it seems the most likely selection process will entail judging a candidate’s viability based on a combination of their state and national poll numbers, fund-raising prowess, and years in elected office. Another solution that party officials have already floated would be deferring the guillotine to the TV networks, who won’t want a glut of candidates limiting front-runner airtime and thus deterring ratings and advertisers. As a bonus, the RNC can then blame the media for who gets left out. And as an additional bonus, maybe the networks can break out some tried-and-true methods for fitting a lot of people onstage:

So what are some of the other suggested solutions? The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway contends that tournament-style competition could do the trick:

It’s kind of like the Olympics. You have the best people from each country competing in the 400 meters, but not everyone is going to fit on the track at the same time. So you have heats. […]

[Or it] could be like March Madness, where top seeds get to go up against lowest-ranked contestants. The top seeds definitely have an advantage, but not an insurmountable one. By the time you get to the Final Four, it doesn’t necessarily look like anyone predicted it would, but you have four victorious teams who made it through some grueling battles.

To wit:

Hemingway also flags a nice way to separate the contenders from the fame-seeking pretenders: Make them pledge not to write a book or sign a television contract for the next two years:

If the run for presidency is just a means for you to sell books and get your own TV show, you don’t really need to have such goals subsidized by the GOP. So this would be a sensible limitation to participation.

Or what about back-to-back debates? That’s what Team Jindal suggested to the New York Times, with each debate getting a randomly selected half of the candidates. The American Conservative’s Noah Millman is brainstorming along similar lines:

[I]nstead of having one set of debates with the whole clown car on stage, you have two sets of debates. One is for the top-tier, the “inner circle” of candidates who are actually interested in running for and have a shot at becoming President. The second set of debates is for, well, the rest of the field.

Millman adds that since the GOP already resembles a reality show, they might as well run with that; he suggests a Survivor-style twist where each pool’s candidates are able to vote to send a candidate up to the front-runner circle, or down to the clown-car one.

Then again, maybe the RNC should just ditch the debates altogether, as Ace of Spades blogger Drew McCoy argues:

These are not debates in any sense of the word. Even in the no-moderator format it’s just going to be a bunch of people trying to one up each other with quips that will make the cable news shows and if they are lucky get played on Rush Limbaugh.

So what to do? Candidate forums. Just bring out each candidate and let them respond to two or three questions from a panel of conservative journalists and/or policy experts. […]

You’d still have time constraints but I’d rather have someone like Rand Paul, Rick Perry or Scott Walker, spend 3-5 minutes straight answering a handful of questions with the spotlight on them than the Gong Show type spectacles we’ve seen the last few go rounds.

Hot Air blogger Allahpundit thinks the candidates could also just go head-to-head:

Limit each candidate to, say, four one-on-one debates and schedule two a week for the rest of the year for 90 minutes, Lincoln-Douglas style. They could be held at regular times, e.g. every Monday and/or Wednesday at 9, and carried live in any number of formats. If Fox News wants the Rubio/Paul debate, they can have it; if they want it but don’t want to preempt Megyn Kelly, they could give it to Fox Business. C-SPAN could and probably would carry every single debate live. So could/would the RNC website. The only reason not to do something like this is that you’re creating many more opportunities for candidates to screw up and say something damaging by forcing them to speak at length, but I think that risk is unavoidable at this point and worth bearing.

But all creative solutions aside, what responsibility does the RNC have to make sure voters get to hear all the voices within the party? On that question, the Daily Caller’s Matt K. Lewis warns that “the power to exclude is the power to destroy”:

If someone is included in the debates, they are granted a certain imprimatur. If someone is excluded from the debates, they are assumed to be politically dead. And, in a way, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s a Catch-22: You can’t get into the debates unless you’re polling at a certain threshold … but you can’t increase your poll numbers unless you get into the debates… Would Mike Huckabee have caught fire in 2008 had he been excluded from early debates?

Outside the Beltway’s Doug Mataconis agrees, insisting that at least in the first few debates, the RNC has to find a way to include every remotely viable candidate:

This would inevitably mean that the early debates are going to be very crowded and not very substantive, but I don’t see any other alternative that doesn’t make the RNC look as though it is favoring some candidates over others, which is something that would cause real problems inside the party. After the first few debate, perhaps, they can start to impose conditions for participation tied to polls and fundraising, but at least in the beginning I would think that the only appropriate policy is one that allows any potentially credible candidate to participate.

That’s probably right, at least until some truly unsavory characters enter the fray: