early and often

Do Republicans Want Swing Voters to Watch Their Debates?

Republican presidential candidates prepare to mix it up in 2016. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Republicans have already served notice that they will no longer play ball with the Commission on Presidential Debates, which both parties established in 1987, by letting their 2024 nominee participate in the traditional nonpartisan general-election debates. Last April, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel attacked the venerable commission as “biased,” echoing regular carping from the GOP’s nominee in 2016 and 2020.

But general election aside, there will almost certainly be a competitive Republican presidential-nomination contest in the 2024 cycle. And that raises a separate and arguably more complex set of questions about candidate debates.

These debates are typically set up and aired by media outlets, with the ground rules negotiated between the hosts and the party and sometimes with individual campaigns. And in contrast to the “go screw yourself” attitude the RNC has taken with the bipartisan debate commission, Republicans seem prepared to wheel and deal — and probably strike a hard bargain — with all comers, as the New York Times reports:

In an intriguing show of détente, the Republican National Committee has asked several major TV networks — including CNN, a regular Republican boogeyman — to consider sponsoring debates, an early sign that the party is making plans for a contested presidential primary.

The debates would probably begin this summer, and Republicans are casting a wide net: Party officials are also in talks with executives from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News, along with more-niche networks like Newsmax and NewsNation, according to several people who requested anonymity to describe discussions intended to be private. Political debates are highly prized in the TV news industry and the networks are expected to present proposals next month.

This latitudinarian attitude about potential primary-debate sponsors does have its limits; MSNBC has not been invited to the debate talks, though its corporate siblings at CNBC, Telemundo, and the NBC broadcast network are inside the tent.

While Republicans could make all sorts of demands about debate sponsors, the big issue will be the party’s desire to minimize the role of debate moderators, whom GOP candidates tend to see as irritants. Indeed, attacking moderators as puffed-up exemplars of the evil mainstream media is such a lucrative message for Republican politicians that some of them might categorically refuse to participate in moderated debates (as some 2022 GOP candidates did). Mike Huckabee, a media-savvy two-time presidential candidate, is proposing a virtually self-moderated format in which the contestants would be given time that they could use as they wish:

“Moderators are at best useless and most often hurtful to the process,” Huckabee told The Daily Beast in a lengthy email. “A REAL debate is about the candidates, not the preening ‘pretty people’ from the anchor desk who make it about themselves.”

But without moderators, primary debates would be a ripe target for candidates (like Donald Trump) who are skilled at exploiting loose debate rules to create spectacles that dominate news coverage of these events. Without structured formats, moreover, primary debates could easily become rallies where the candidates compete to throw red meat to howling audiences in the room and at home. The question that Republicans must answer is whether primary debates are purely intramural or are intended to advertise the GOP to swing voters. This isn’t a tendentious question. There are undoubtedly smart people in both parties who would be happy to have swing voters stay away from primary debates and instead get their information from paid ads that paint the partisan opponent as monstrous.

Still, presidential primary debates could represent a big lost opportunity to reach voters beyond the party base. They are certainly a bargain for candidates seeking exposure at the expense of media outlets, which value these events a great deal, as the Times noted:

Networks typically foot the significant costs for holding a debate, including paying for the venue rental and production crew; in return, TV executives secure big ratings and big revenue. Primary debates in 2015 and 2019 broke viewership records. In the 2016 race, when both parties’ nominations were openly contested, CNN hosted more than a dozen primary debates and candidate forums; the network often made up to $2 million in profit from each event, according to a person with knowledge of internal financial figures.

Exposure value aside, primary debates sometimes really matter. This was probably best illustrated by the February 2020 Democratic debate in Las Vegas in which Elizabeth Warren took down Michael Bloomberg hard, spoiling his vast investment in ads and other campaign expenses and very likely paving the way for Joe Biden’s eventual nomination and election.

Ground rules and the role of moderators aren’t the only issues Republicans will need to figure out in their negotiations with the media. If they wind up with the kind of huge presidential field they had in 2016 and Democrats had in 2020, they will face the unsatisfying choice of either excluding low-polling candidates (or consigning them to a separate “junior varsity” debate no one watches) or using devices like the random drawings 2020 Democrats utilized. If, however, the 2024 GOP contest quickly devolves into a cage match between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, all the rules in the world may not keep the debate from broadcasting the darker sentiments of the Republican Party into many millions of households like a thunderbolt from hell.

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Do Republicans Want Swing Voters to Watch Their Debates?