early and often

Republican Debate Rules Are a Dysfunctional Mess

Perry Johnson may be a marginal candidate, but he has a legitimate beef with the RNC. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Perry Johnson is hopping mad. So are Francis Suarez and Larry Elder. These marginal presidential candidates are aggrieved at being excluded from the first GOP candidate debate on August 23, and they all have a point.

The three candidates claimed they had met the Republican National Committee’s donor and polling requirements for making the stage in Milwaukee. They were each informed right after the August 21 qualifying deadline that they had, in fact, failed to meet the RNC’s extremely imprecise polling criteria (supposedly one percent in three national or two national and two early-state polls meeting some clear and some clear-as-mud conditions). In Elder’s case, the problem was that one of the national polls he cited (from Scott Rasmussen) couldn’t be used because of the pollster’s close ties to Donald Trump.

RNC chairman Ronna McDaniel continues to claim that the polling criteria were crystal clear (“Our rules were very clear” and “We put them out very early,” she told Politico Playbook), but it’s hard to understand why the RNC didn’t use polling averages as the RNC did in 2016, or simply release a list of qualifying polls as they were certified, which the DNC did in 2020. Instead, McDaniel and her staff refused to answer questions about qualifying polls for weeks. Understandably, the excluded candidates think the fix was in.

So the RNC’s debate-qualification process flunked the cardinal test of presenting a reasonably fair and objective standard for participation thanks to a bizarre insistence on secrecy. But that’s not the only manifest failure by the national party.

The debate criteria also included a donor threshold (40,000 unique donors, with at least 200 in 20 states) ostensibly designed to ensure that candidates display not just a fat wallet but a sustainable and national small-dollar financial base. Self-funders like Doug Burgum quickly made a mockery of this requirement by using their money to buy small donations (in Burgum’s case, he offered $20 gift cards to every $1 donor). The RNC should have put a stop to that sort of cynical manipulation of the rules before it started.

But the buy-a-donor trick wasn’t half as cynical as the attitude multiple candidates had toward another RNC requirement: a loyalty pledge designed to force support for the party nominee in November of 2024. Will Hurd honorably excluded himself from the first debate and subsequent debates by refusing to consider a pledge to support Trump as the nominee. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson are running as anti-Trump candidates as vociferously as is Hurd, and each showed contempt for his own word by signing the pledge.

Trump himself, of course, modeled this behavior by signing a 2016 loyalty pledge after refusing to do so for a while, making it clear it was just a scrap of paper to him.

But beyond the incompetent rule-making involved in the polling, donor, and “loyalty” qualifications, the RNC flubbed a bigger challenge. Debate viewers will not only be denied the wit and wisdom of Johnson, Suarez, and Elder: The national party also managed to create a debate field that doesn’t include the overwhelming front-runner and likely 2024 nominee. It wasn’t easy, of course, to coerce Trump into a debate he felt he didn’t need, but you get the sense the RNC and McDaniel didn’t try very hard, perhaps not wanting to annoy their real master.

As Ben Jacobs pointed out at the New Republic, the RNC can kick down, but not up:

At least for now, this is the extent of the RNC’s power. It can’t do a thing to rein in Donald Trump, but at least it can always crack the whip on Perry Johnson.

There’s no reason to think this will change in subsequent debates. The qualifications for the second debate in California on September 27 are just ratcheted-up versions of the first. Now candidates will need to buy another 10,000 donors and hit 3 percent in national and state polls that the RNC won’t identify. Presumably, they won’t have to sign the loyalty pledge more than once. But there’s zero guarantee that the second and subsequent debates will include all potentially viable candidates, or the one candidate the rest of them are chasing. Party-regulated presidential candidate debates are presumably an improvement on the old chaotic system when anybody could sponsor a debate and you never knew who might show up. But the GOP’s 2024 arrangement isn’t much better. And that’s before we even find out if the debates themselves are legitimate tests of the candidates’ mettle, or just a circus aimed at ratings and secondary media coverage.

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Republican Debate Rules Are a Dysfunctional Mess