How We Improved the GOP Debates

rice-logoBy Sean Spicer

The frustrating approach in 2012 demanded change. This cannot come as a surprise to today’s candidates.

But let’s step back for a moment and add some context to the discussion. In 2008 there were 23 GOP debates; in 2012 there were 20, and the first debate of that cycle occurred in May 2011. Most observers concluded after the 2012 election that the packed debate schedule was a disservice to the candidates—and, more important, to the voters. The schedule kept candidates off the campaign trail, robbing them of time that otherwise could have been spent meeting with voters, listening to their concerns and trying to earn their support.

There was also frustration about debate hosts and moderators, some of whom had concocted bizarre and irrelevant questions.

So the Republican National Committee, where I work, decided to take action—to do what it could within the law to achieve three goals.

First, we sought to give the process predictability so that candidates would know the schedule in advance and could spend more time meeting with voters and taking part in other forums where they could engage in longer, more in-depth discussions. We succeeded in doing that with a schedule that includes one debate a month starting in August and then two a month beginning in 2016, for a total of nine televised debates.

Second, we wanted to add an element of conservative media to the debates. We have succeeded in that as well. NBC is partnering with National Review, CNN is partnering with Salem Radio, and ABC is partnering with the Independent Journal Review. This ensures that the concerns of grass-roots Republicans will be more likely to be addressed.

Third, we wanted to spread the debates into more states so that they were not concentrated in only a handful. We have done so. The nine scheduled debates will take place in nine different states, and that will bring more people into the process.

But now some observers, in and out of the campaigns, have expressed concern about the criteria used to determine who will appear onstage for the first two debates.

It is important to acknowledge that the networks and the networks alone are responsible for determining such criteria. Federal election law states that only two types of entities may host a debate: a 501(c)(3) organization or a media outlet. The Republican National Committee is neither. It is therefore up to the staging organization to set the criteria and the format. Those who call on the RNC to change the criteria misunderstand the law.

Such criteria must be clear, transparent, objective and neutral. No special exemptions can be made; special treatment cannot be given to certain candidates. Fox News and CNN have met these standards.

Right now the Republican Party suffers from an abundance of riches when it comes to the historic quantity of quality candidates: They can’t fit on one stage. The maximum of 10 candidates appearing on a debate stage for 2016 matches the highest for debates in either party. Fox News and CNN have taken it upon themselves to guarantee second debates for the declared Republican candidates not in the top 10. So to everyone who says “let them debate,” the top 16 candidates will debate. Is the arrangement perfect? No. It is, however, the most inclusive setup in history.

Some have suggested that the criteria should be changed to include all “legitimate” candidates on the debate stage. But who decides who’s “legitimate”? By late July, 114 candidates—yes, 114!—had filed paperwork to seek the Republican nomination. Is every governor legitimate? How about every senator or member of the House of Representatives? Former members and governors? Statewide officials? Without using an objective standard like national polling, as Fox News and CNN will, the criteria become much more subjective.

To those who say all candidates deserve a chance to have their voices heard, they will. There will have been 25 candidate forums before the first debate, Fox’s on Aug. 6 followed by CNN’s on Sept. 16. These forums, from CPAC to Citizens United to the forum on SiriusXM on the Wednesday before the first debate, allow the candidates to address voters directly without the back-and-forth of a debate.

The fact that we have primary debates and a field larger than a stage can handle should surprise no one. So even before the criteria were announced, candidates or prospective candidates and their teams certainly were aware that their strategic decisions could affect whether they would qualify for a debate. They were free to plan accordingly.

Those who dispute the use of national polls as the basis of deciding who’s onstage for the first two debates should keep in mind that networks may use different criteria for subsequent ones. That includes polls of the voters in the state where the debate is held. But also keep in mind we are a national party trying to win a national election.

Debates are not the be-all and end-all. They are just a part of the larger process. Mitt Romney did not participate in the first debate of the 2012 cycle, but he still went on to win the nomination.

This system may not be perfect, but had the RNC not tried to improve the debate process, I can assure you that the debates would be neither this inclusive nor this orderly.

Mr. Spicer is the chief strategist and communications director of the Republican National Committee.


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