The first debate in the Republican nominating season is only a few weeks away. Owing to the large number of candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination, it is not yet clear which candidates will participate in the debate. Currently, Fox News, the network sponsoring the first debate intends to limit the debate to the ten strongest candidates based on an aggregate of recent polling. The debate itself will be preceded by a forum featuring the gaggle of candidates who did not make the cut.
This approach seems like a reasonable answer to a difficult question, but it also raises several methodological questions: what polls will be considered, what will happen if, as expected, there are several candidates bunched around the tenth position who are all within the margin of errors of the polls, and will polls be considered equally regardless of whether they sample all Republicans or likely voters. These methodological issues will be resolved one way or the other, and will not effect the top tier of candidates. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Donald Trump and even Ben Carson, are more or less guaranteed to be in the debate, but a decision that keeps former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie out, for example, could rest on very tenuous methodology.
The question of who the eighth through 10th candidates to be included in the debate will be may overshadow a bigger problem with the debate and obscure a possible solution to the problem. The problem with most recent presidential debates is not that their have been too many candidates, but that they are not really debates. The format is so strict and, due to the demands of the various campaigns, risk averse, that the candidates rarely interact with each other at all. The staged events are remembered largely for the occasional gaffe, such as Rick Perry forgetting what the third department of the government he wanted to eliminate or Mitt Romney’s awkward phrase, “Binders full of women.”
Since the goal of debates has become to avoid a mistake, most participants adopt a cautious style. This makes political sense, but does not lead to interesting viewing. Accordingly, the debates have the feel of parallel press conferences, rather than an open and contentious discussion of the issues and the qualifications of the candidates themselves. This makes for neither compelling viewing or important politics.
The Republican leadership could solve both these problems by choosing a very different debate format. Rather than two stilted and highly formatted debates, the GOP could have one large debate in which all 16 or so candidates would be included. This all-inclusive approach would take more time, but substantially reducing the role of the moderator could help speed the debate along.
A four-hour debate with little moderating would be something entirely new in presidential politics; and that might be why it would benefit the Republicans to try it. Almost nobody, other than journalists, political professionals, and intense political junkies would watch that entire debate, but that is not a major obstacle. Political information is not consumed through long form television anymore. Instead, various bits of the debate would become fodder for hundreds of YouTube clips, Tweets, campaign ads for candidates, attack ads agains the other candidates or other bits of political communication. Republican voters would not have to watch the whole debate, but through these media would be able to learn more about the candidates than they will from a shorter, highly moderated debate with ten candidates.
This format would also make it possible for the candidates both to interact more with each other and to develop their points, arguments and policy proposals more deeply than in a shorter, rigid debate. It is relatively easy to get by with platitudes and very broad brush solutions when limited to two minute answers and thirty second responses, but in a longer debate candidates who were not well-informed about a particular foreign policy issue, or who had not fully thought out their economic program would be exposed much more easily.
A longer format would also force the candidates to show more of themselves to voters as they would have to speak more extemporaneously, address a broader range of topics and respond to other candidates. This would be a riskier approach, but it would be an excellent opportunity for voters to learn more about the large field. It might also allow candidates who are lesser known, but who have a record of governance and competence, John Kasich for example, to emerge from the group.
It is axiomatic that the Republican Party would never try this format. There are too many risks. But the party that takes a new approach, treating the many candidates equally and eschewing the crutch of an over-moderated, sterile debate, might become popular beyond a demographic base that, at the moment, is relatively limited.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.