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Republican Debates Reimagined as Tournament Brackets

With so many candidates on stage, a bracket system might be better than a cattle call.
/ Source: NBC News

The number of candidates competing for the Republican nomination has grown so large that debate organizers have decided to split the field into two groups – the top ten, and the bottom seven. It's a thorny problem to solve, and nobody is truly satisfied with this two-tier arrangement, even if it presents some advantages for the top-tier candidates.

But what if there was another way to organize the debates so that voters could really learn about the candidates, and so that candidates could have a chance to express a point of view with more than sixty seconds on the clock?

There are many solutions that the Republican National Committee could explore, but consider a debate schedule built around a hypothetical tournament bracket. Each candidate would have the chance to air their views, and they would be forced to confront just one person at a time, limiting the cattle-call feel of the current debates. It would also give a chance for lower-performing campaigns to capture some of the spotlight by landing a rhetorical punch against the heavyweights at the top of the polls.

Seeding the bracket would be complicated. We’ve designed two possible seeds – one based on polling position at the time of the debate cut off, and another that ranks candidates by the combined fundraising of their campaigns and their super-PACs.

But you could also imagine a scenario where match-ups were based on ideological positions, or resumes. Governors like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal could square off, and candidates who share a political base, like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, might compete. You could imagine a lively foreign policy debate between libertarian Sen. Rand Paul and hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Obviously, advancing through the bracket presents a challenge. You could employ a public vote, a la American Idol, but just like the (now discredited) Iowa Straw Poll, such a system might easily be hijacked if a campaign has enough mobilized volunteers. Even if you took a public poll, the winner of a bracket simply advances to more debates. The real voting would still have to wait until primary season starts in earnest.

NBC News imagines what a tournament bracket might look like based on Republican candidates polling position.
NBC News imagines what a tournament bracket might look like based on Republican candidates polling position.Matt Rivera / NBC News