Would Postponing Presidential Candidate Debates Matter?

I’m going to look at the GOP presidential nomination process suggested reforms out yesterday, starting with the debates.

The RNC wants to chop in half the number of primary-season debates next time around, starting later (not until September 2015) and ending earlier (“after the first several primaries”).

It is worth noting this would mean that the first debate wouldn’t be until after the Ames Straw Poll…and whatever one thinks of Ames, it’s now become a regular pattern that one or more candidate is knocked out before the suggested date of the first debate.

If Republicans really were able to enforce both a ban on early debates and either a ban or at least a de-emphasis on early straw polls, it might — might! — mean two changes. Candidates who are fully in, but whose candidacies turned out to be duds, might well continue on into the fall…and perhaps if they make it to October, they might stick around until Iowa just in case lightning strikes.

On the other hand, the lack of any clear markers (debates, straw polls) early in the process might encourage candidates to extend the half-in/half-out period that, say, Sarah Palin managed to milk for months in the run-up to 2012.

So…I’m not exactly predicting any of these things happening. First of all, the RNC said nothing about Ames, although there has been a fair amount of Ames-bashing previously. Second of all, there are good reasons that early debates and straw polls happen. The press wants them, most definitely including the partisan press. Longshot candidates want them. Crank candidates (that is, those who are running not for the nomination but for a contract with Fox News or a radio show) want them. The sponsors/hosts want them. So whatever the merits, it’s not at all clear that the RNC will succeed in getting those early markers delayed closer to the election year.

And second, it’s not entirely clear exactly why Republican candidates have been exiting before Iowa, anyway. I do believe it’s real, and a fairly big deal, and has to do with candidates realizing that their chances are very slim. It’s a lot harder to know, however, exactly how that works, and therefore how changing the architecture of the year before the primaries will actually change things.

It’s also not at all clear that the Republican Party would have been better off if Tim Pawlenty, Dan Quayle, Liddy Dole, Pete Wilson, and others had made it to Iowa.

At any rate, getting back to debates…if the natural tendency of debates is to keep spreading, then perhaps it’s worth it for the RNC to fight back — not so they’ll actually get whatever they think is their perfect debate schedule, but in order to control the spread some.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.