News & Insights

Let All 16 Candidates Debate


What happens when you try to rerun the last election? Answer: You lose.

That’s precisely what the Republican National Committee is setting itself up to do with its presidential debate gambit. The RNC, in league with Fox News and CNN, is limiting the participants in the first two Republican debates, on Aug. 6 and Sept. 16, to only the top candidates in national polls, half a year before any voters cast a ballot.

Let’s speak the truth out loud, just for fun. The big donors to the Republican Party were mad after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012. I don’t blame them: I was mad too, and the country has paid the price for its choice.

These donors’ theory is that one of the big reasons Mr. Romney lost is that he was forced to argue with a bunch of inferior life-forms in countless debates, which forced him to claim that he was “severely conservative” and in favor of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants, whatever that is. News flash: A competitive primary did not cause Mitt Romney to lose.

But that was then and this is now. By all accounts, the Republican field boasts a deep and impressive array of candidates, much stronger than that of 2012. The Democrats, by contrast, are less about primaries or debates than about a coronation.

The Republican Party should be looking forward instead of backward—and seeking every opportunity to feature its roster of excellent candidates, rather than trying to find ways to constrict the field. The voters will do that, as is their prerogative. The simple truth is that competitive primaries usually make a party stronger, not weaker.

It’s also true that whenever the smart guys in Washington get together and try to shortcut the democratic process by imposing a candidate from the top down, it generally goes poorly. Whatever happened to the idea of freedom? Or democracy? Or robust argument? As a Republican, I wonder: When did we start fearing debates? And if we do fear debates, what business do we have trying to win elections?

The plan to limit the participants in these debates is ridiculous in almost every respect:

• National polling would be a decent way to measure candidates’ support in a national primary. But we don’t have a national primary. We have a series of elections by state over an extended period, so this measurement has nothing to do with the reality. Other than that, it’s just fine.

• The policy favors retread candidates and political dynasties based solely on name identification. If your brother or father ran, you get rewarded. If you ran before, you get rewarded. But if you are a new face, you are penalized.

• The move also benefits personalities and circus acts. If you have a TV show, you will easily have enough name recognition to get into the debates. Doesn’t matter if you’d make a plausible president of the United States. It is a certainty that under this approach if Tom Brady or Jimmy Fallon announced this week that they were running, they’d make the cut. A certainty.

• Other beneficiaries: camera hounds from the political class who live in the Washington and New York media capitals. If you’re a senator or congressman, you can get yourself on cable news four times a week. Or if you’re the governor of New Jersey, you can schlep across the bridge, traffic permitting, and do a bunch of national TV shows.

• The RNC’s approach circumvents the political process. In the past two elections, the winners of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, were nowhere to be found in national polling the summer before. The same would be true for two little-known governors of Georgia and Arkansas, both of whom went on to call 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. their home.

• Relying on national polling the summer before the election gives candidates an incentive to run much longer campaigns and penalizes candidates who don’t. Is that what we really want? Campaigns that begin two years before voters will actually head to the polls?

• Finally, there are extreme methodological flaws in these surveys, making the entire thing a charade. Most of these so-called national polls contact roughly 1,000 random voters, and thus end up with Republican sample sizes of only a few hundred people. That is a complete joke: Every reputable polling firm demands at least a 400-person sample for a survey of even a single congressional district. Furthermore, most media surveys inexplicably fail to screen for likely primary voters, which is a basic necessity for accurate results.

The Republican Party’s leaders vowed to take control of the debate process, but they’re fighting the last war—and inviting trouble. The RNC seems to know that it has created a mess, and last week laughably attempted to reverse course by advancing a bizarre argument that it is forbidden by Federal Election Commission rules from influencing the debate process. That line was instantly dismissed by legal experts, but it’s worth noting the logic: The people who vowed to take control of the debate process now say they are legally forbidden from doing so. Go figure.

Here’s a wild and controversial idea: Trust the voters. Let candidates debate whenever and wherever they want. Don’t try to control the process from Washington. Let freedom ring.

This op-ed originally ran in the Wall Street Journal on July 22, 2015.