A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along the Belt Parkway, listening to Sean Hannity’s radio show, when the right-wing commentator said something that surprised me about the ever-expanding field of Republican primary candidates. This is getting ridiculous, Hannity complained—how are they all supposed to fit on the same stage for a debate?
Hannity’s fears have proved to be well grounded. On Wednesday, the former senator Rick Santorum, who had been the runner-up to Mitt Romney in the 2012 G.O.P. primary, announced his candidacy. On Thursday, it will be the turn of George Pataki, the former governor of New York. Who knows whom Friday will bring? Lindsey Graham? Rick Perry? Donald Trump? Herman (999) Cain? Ted Nugent?
Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight Republican candidates who, by Thursday, will be officially running: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Pataki, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Santorum. Then there are Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, two front-runners who have all but announced that they are in. Currently in the “exploratory” stage, we have Graham, Trump, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and the benighted Chris Christie. That makes fifteen, with other outlying possibilities, too.
The number turns out to be too high for Roger Ailes, Hannity’s boss at Fox News. The network (along with Facebook) is set to host the first televised G.O.P. debate, in Cleveland, on August 6th, and it has said that it intends to limit participation to the top ten candidates in the polls, plus those who are tied. “It was a difficult call based on political necessity,” Howard Kurtz, the veteran media reporter, who now works for Fox, explained in a post on Tuesday. “With 17 or 18 Republicans gearing up to run, you simply can’t have a viable debate with all of them. Each candidate would receive a miniscule amount of time. No sustained questioning would be possible. And it would be bad television.”
Not everyone associated with the Republican Party is happy about Fox’s decision. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday, Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, accused Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, of colluding with Fox to cull the field prematurely. “There are fourteen candidates who are serious people,” Kristol said (doubtless prompting a protest call from Trump). “I think they all deserve to be on the stage.” He proposed that they have two debates, with the candidates split up randomly. “Republicans would be interested. They wouldn’t turn off the TV halfway through.”
Kristol raises a good point. If Fox applied its proposed criteria on the basis of current polling data collated by Real Clear Politics, Santorum, who won eleven state primaries in 2012, would barely make the cut. Fiorina, the only female candidate, who has reportedly impressed Republican audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire, would miss out. So would Graham, Jindal, and Kasich, all experienced elected officials. That doesn’t seem fair, or even particularly democratic. So what to do?
The G.O.P. needs a procedure that affords all of the candidates an opportunity to impress while also acknowledging that voters (and viewers) can’t be expected to take all fifteen or twenty candidates seriously. One solution might be to turn the early stages of the G.O.P. primary into a version of “Survivor,” the long-running reality-television series.
Here’s how it could work. Following Kristol’s suggestion, Fox and Facebook would hold two debates on August 6th, with the candidates drawing lots to decide whether they appeared on the first or the second one. Each would receive the same amount of airtime, and the questions in the two debates would be broadly similar.
For the second debate, which CNN is scheduled to host from the Reagan Library, in Simi Valley, on September 16th, things would be different. A limit of twelve candidates would be imposed. Rather than follow the “Survivor” template literally, and have the candidates themselves decide who gets to appear at the debate and who doesn’t, it would be best to rely on surveys of likely Republican voters. The top dozen candidates in the poll of polls on September 9th, a week before the debate, would make the cut; everybody else would miss out. I’d leave it to the network executives and the R.N.C. to decide whether this debate would need to be split in two, like the first one. (CNN has suggested an alternative format for its event, using the full slate of candidates, in which the top ten candidates appear in one debate and the rest in another.)
The winnowing process wouldn’t end there. For the third debate, which will take place in October, there would be another cut, to ten candidates, with the poll of polls again deciding who is invited. And for the fourth debate, in November, there would be a final cut, to eight candidates.
By that stage, the G.O.P.’s Iowa caucus would be on the horizon—it’s now slated for February 2nd, but may well move up a bit—and the field might be starting to narrow of its own accord, regardless. But for now, and for the next few months, there are too many candidates, and some way of treating them equitably needs to be found.
My solution perhaps isn’t the best. Quite probably, it would favor candidates who have raised enough money to launch advertising campaigns and boost their poll numbers—but the current system does that anyway. Another possible objection is that focussing attention on the minor players would blur the message of the front-runners. I doubt that would happen. Bush, Rubio, and Walker would still get the bulk of the media’s attention.
On the upside, shifting to the “Survivor” model would afford everyone an opportunity, and it would inject a bit of excitement into the race early on. Over to you, Reince!