The slate of Republicans running for the presidential nomination now stands at a pretty ungainly 16.
This is the largest number of GOP candidates in over 40 years, which presents some huge problems for the party, for the networks running debates and most importantly, for the voters.
So given that the GOP is going to field enough candidates for a very old, very rich basketball team, why not model the entire debate system after the NCAA Tournament? Debate bracketology can’t be any more complicated than the political scrum we’re facing right now. So who’s ready for a little political March Madness?
Fox and CNN are the first two networks carrying the Republican debates. They have created the arbitrary cut off of 10 participants, imposing a combination of the following standards to get on stage for the big game.
The Candidate must have:
- Formally filed to run for President with the FEC
- Rank in the top 10 of the five most recent “national” polls
- Paid staff on the ground of at least two of the first four primary states (CNN only)
- Visited at least two of the early primary states at least once before the debate (CNN only)
And if you don’t meet these standards? Well you get to go to the political NIT. On Fox this means you’ll get a late afternoon roundtable and then do layup drills while the varsity team gets a prime time spot to answer the real questions. With CNN you get to do a charity tournament Q&A while the big dogs get a prime time spot.
There are literally dozens of problems with these criteria and debate set ups. Forcing presidential candidates to essentially run national campaigns to get into debates diminishes the importance of the first primary states, puts too much power into the hands of pollsters (who often employ slightly different methodologies), gives the networks a weaker product and robs the primary voter of being the ultimate decision maker.
The system works much better when the bar to entry is low, but the chances to prove yourself on the court are high. Just ask Rick Santorum. In early 2011 the one-term former Pennsylvania Senator was polling at 4 percent nationally, but he was able to participate in multiple debates, put together an amazing network on the ground in Iowa, and shocked the field by squeaking out a victory over Mitt Romney.
With the boost Santorum got from Iowa he raised a lot more money, jumped in the polls and ended up winning 11 primary states. Santorum was the classic bubble team that played Duke tough at the end of the season, got a bid in the tournament and Cinderella’d his way into the Final Four.
There’s a reason nobody liked the computer generated college football BCS and preferred the “play to stay” style NCAA tournament. It’s inherently anticompetitive and anti-democratic for candidates to be locked out of debates because of some arbitrary formula based on what works best for television, rather than competing head-to-head and letting the public and the voters decide.
A March Madness style tournament would work better from every perspective: the GOP would get a better showcase for candidates, the networks would get a better product and the voters would get to see real debates not a slew of talking points.
Imagine the following scenario: Rather than have 10 debaters on stage and 6 relegated to obscurity with a consolation prize panel, how about giving all 16 a chance to shine by splitting them into brackets?
Candidates would be broken down by region, and there would be two reach debates with the top two polling candidates from each bracket getting to move on to the next round after the Iowa caucuses.
This would work out great for the Republican party. With 10 candidates on stage you increase the chances of someone saying something crazy that will come back to haunt the party in the general election. With the debate bracket format, candidates would be able to actually express their policies and political viewpoints rather than scramble for the ball whenever Jeb slips up or Trump isn’t hogging the microphone.
Plus, let's say you performed well in debates but didn't make the debate cut after Iowa, that doesn't spell doom for a campaign, whereas being cut out of debates before Iowa all but guarantees you're going fishing before the first ballot is counted.
This first round would give the public 8 debates (two for each bracket) over the next 5 months - and if the 2012 GOP debates were any indicator this would be a ratings boon for every network carrying one of these “Bracket Debates”.
Like the NCAA tourney, you don’t really want to see Duke vs. Michigan State in the first round. You want to build up to the competition -- not see some great player knocked out before the big dance.
Just imagine these first round match ups and tell me Chuck Todd, Sean Hannity and Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t be having a field day with pre-debate Bracketology coverage:
Northeast: Trump vs. Christie, The Tumble on The Turnpike! This would be like one of those old school Georgetown vs. Syracuse slugfests from the 80s.
Southeast: Rand Paul’s libertarian conservatism vs. Jeb Bush’s common core hedging. Will Rand Paul be “one and done” like most Kentucky players? Or could his rapid fire political offense upset the Bush dynasty? And don’t forget about the stifling national defense rhetoric of Marco Rubio sneaking in late in the 4th.
Midwest: Wouldn’t American voters be better served by a first round matchup between Scott Walker’s Koch Brothers conservatism, Mike Huckabee’s values-voter rhetoric and John Kasich’s purple state practicality for an hour rather than watching them scramble for 30 seconds of scraps after Jeb Bush is done talking?
Would this system be more expensive? In the short term, yes. Organizing 8 debates between now and the Iowa Caucuses in January would take a lot of work, but the end result would be great television and it would be great for Democracy. We should be finding ways to include MORE people in presidential politics, not less.
It’s not the press, or the pundits or even the party’s job to decide who gets to present themselves to the public as a presidential candidate. It’s the people. And the people, like, understand and can get engaged in a sports analogy for American electoral politics.
Who knows, we might get surprised and have a presidential candidate get hot in the first round and knock out a few ‘contenders’. We’ve already had some Razorbacks and apparently a Blue Devil compete for the white House, I wouldn’t mind a Cinderella getting the chance.