Thursday, May 14, 2015

Once More, Unto the Breach Dear Friends

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, where GOP big shots from Karl Rove down to Mitt Romney sat stunned because they believed that the election was in the bag (and should have been in the bag), the GOP began a round of soul searching, as well as finger pointing (who can forget Mitt's double down comments crediting Obama's re-election to "gifts" to a variety of parasitical citizens)?

In the aftermath of this soul searching, the GOP produced a fairly interesting and revealing introspection about how the party would need to change if it wanted to win presidential elections, starting with the open-seat election in 2016.  The result of this introspection is a 100 page document titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project".  On page 69, the article focuses on the primaries, and especially the debates that took place among the potential nominees.

The authors note that in 1980, there were just six debates. In 2000 there were 13. But then in 2008 and 2012, the number of debates exploded, with 21 and 20 respectively. Furthermore, in 1980, the first debate did not take place until the Iowa Caucuses were about to begin, while in 2012 the first debate took place eight months before Iowa:

 In addition to the large quantity of debates, there was the added problem of two debates held back to back within a 12 hour period--the first in the evening on Saturday January 7, 2012 and the second in the morning on Sunday, January 8, 2012.

The authors argue that it is time for the Party to get control over the timing, sponsorship, and candidate participation of GOP debates because currently the GOP brand, and candidates, are being hurt via a collusion of the liberal media and unelectable candidates who push for more, and not less, debates.  They note:

The media will decide how many debates the party should have instead of the Party making the decision. In order to have a process that respects a candidate's time and one that helps the Party win (71).

 Their recommendations for 2016:
  • Hold between 10-12 debates beginning no earlier than September 2015 and ending somewhere around Super Tuesday in late February or early March.
  • After the last round of debates, if there continues to be a competitive battle between two or more candidates (similar to 2008 for the Democrats), then it should be up to the candidates to decide if they want to accept or decline additional debates
  • The RNC needs to get control of the scheduling process as soon as possible: by announcing the number of debates as well as when they will begin in late 2014 or early 2015, before the field of candidates has had a chance to get set. Further, the RNC should penalize any candidate or state party that defects from the schedule by attending non-sanctioned debates (or hosting non-sanctioned debates) by taking away delegates going into the GOP Convention in the summer of 2016, or more realistically, by barring from sponsored debates the participation of candidates who appear in non-sponsored debates.
The RNC did announce its schedule of "sanctioned" debates: five in 2015 and then five more in 2016, with the first one held in Cleveland (also the home to their summer convention) on August 6, 2015 and the last one in March 2016, location TBD.  And no mystery, the big winner as far as hosts go is "Fox News" (or its subsidiary, the "Fox Business Channel"), which will air four of the debates.  In addition, the conservative Salem Media Group is also a big winner, sponsoring three of the debates.

The paper underscores a long standing tension between political parties, candidates, and the media when it comes to who or what matters during election time.  Back in 1969, the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the control over the selection of party nominees, removing it from the party leadership and handing it over to the rank and file voter in the 50 states and territories.  As a result, who mattered in presidential elections shifted from Party-Candidate to Candidate-Media.  In fact, we can lay a great deal of the blame at the feet of the Democrats for agreeing to implement the Commission reforms, because it brought with it the need for incredibly enormous sums of money and a near dependence upon political advertising (one going hand in hand with the other). Furthermore, it removed the party from having any influence over the choice of nominees, often getting stuck with the least desirable candidate.  More recently, the political parties have been trying, with some success, to regain control over the selection of candidates and the direction of campaigns (see, for example, Groeling's When Parties Attack: Party Cohesion in the Media. NY: Cambridge University Press. 2010).

Jonathan Martin, writing in yesterday's New York Times, draws attention to the problems the GOP faces as it rushes headlong into the 2016 election cycle with a number of top shelf and bottom shelf candidates, versus the Democrats, who have Hillary Clinton and not much else (with all due respect to that loyal Bernie Sanders contingent).  The article also illustrates a particular problem regarding who gets to decide who appears in those debates sanctioned by the GOP.  From the lede:

Republican leaders, searching for a fair-minded but strategically wise way to conduct the presidential primary debates, are grappling with how to manage White House contenders in a sprawling field that mixes proven politicians with provocateurs and reflects an increasingly fractious party.

 At the moment, there does not seem to be a fair way to decide who appears and who does not.  As Martin argues, relying on polling could preclude current or former GOP politicians from participating because they may not be well known to the public at large.  What is especially ironic, or delicious, depending on your political views, is that public opinion polling is the weapon that the Democrats and Republicans use to keep third party candidates out of the presidential debates, and no one from either Party or from the Commission on Presidential Debates suggest any problems exist from using public opinion polling as a barrier to entry.  The problem for the GOP is relying only on public opinion polling to decide who participates or not is likely to be the very thing that pushes candidates into appearing in non-sanctioned debates.  And if some attend the non-sanctioned debates, you can bet most, if not all, will attend.

The GOP face the additional problem of optics in winnowing the field.  From Martin:

Many Republicans laboring to improve the party’s image recoil from the prospect that whatever debate-eligibility criteria are adopted could result in the barring of the only woman, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, or Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is the only African-American candidate.
But if they decide to allow Fiorina and Carson to attend while cutting other candidates such as my State's Governor John Kasich, the GOP face the additional problem of appearing to embrace affirmative action. 

So how does the GOP leadership see a way to resolve this problem?  As Martin notes, for the first debate in August:
One member of the national committee panel charged with overseeing the debates said its members had discussed ceding the decision entirely to Fox News.

So pass the buck is your answer?

It may just be that the GOP leadership is looking at this in the wrong way.  While I am sympathetic to the problem of over exposure--too many debates--as well as over simplification--too many people on the stage forces each person to boil down complex arguments into bite sized nuggets due to time constraints, the GOP should be asking themselves just what do debates in general accomplish? What impact do they really have on the eventual decisions that American voters make in November?

Martin seems to believe that debates do make a difference.  He argues: " the 2012 primary demonstrated, televised debates can instantaneously reshape presidential races...".

He also suggests that candidates who do get excluded as a result of the criteria that the GOP, in conjunction with the media, develop will take their anger to

...conservative websites and talk radio to foment anger at the so-called Republican establishment — an assault that could undermine the national committee’s hold on the debate process.

If you believe people like John Sides, these pre-primary and primary debates do not matter much in affecting the electoral chances of the eventual nominee.  In fact, the benefit from these debates is two fold (at least):

First, it does act as a kind of training ground for the eventual nominees, who will only get three chances to debate one another in the general election (the list of potential debate sites is currently available at the Commission on Presidential Debates).

Second, these debates can save the party from making a very bad decision on a candidate who may be a media darling, but is nowhere near ready for prime time (think former Texas Governor Rick Perry).

It seems to me that the problem of superficiality, which some critics believe stems from too many candidates in the race, is less a result of the number of debates or the number of participants, and more the result of the media's role in the process, starting with sponsorship of the debates.  Each one of the ten GOP debates is sponsored by a media organization--either cable or broadcast television.  And if you recall the 2012 primary debates, the media coverage, coupled with the questions asked, were down right offensive to the intellect of the audience.  Examples?

In the June 2011 debate that CNN sponsored, the moderator, John King, said this:

All right. I want to -- got to work in one more break before we go. We've got a lot more ground to cover. Believe it or not, our candidates -- we're running out of time here.

Into and out of every break we're having a little experiment called "This or That."

Governor Pawlenty, to you, Coke or Pepsi?


Or worse yet, who could forget the CNN "Tea Party" sponsored debate in September 2011, which had an introduction that was straight out of Monday Night Football or professional wrestling, or this from intellectual powerhouse Wolf Blitzer:

“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”
And finally, regarding the worry about the power of the  fringe to take to conservative media and to bring down the Party is giving to much credit to the fringe and to conservative media.  As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck argue in The Gamble, one of the mistakes that Mitt Romney made in the primary back in 2012 was to over-estimate the power and the size of the Tea Party faction within the GOP, forcing him to take conservative stands when he did not need to.  And political talk radio, once a force in American, and Republican, politics has disintegrated as a result of an aging audience and the continual fragmentation of our media into a million little pieces.

It will be something to watch as 2016 comes closer into view to see whether or not the Party, or the candidate, has real pull in the election cycle.  But if the last two election cycles are any guide, having fewer debates is not likely to happen in 2016, or in any other presidential election cycle to come.

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