How to Trump-proof the GOP primary debates

Newt and Mitt, during a Jan. 26, 2012, debate in Jacksonville, Fla.

Newt and Mitt, during a Jan. 26, 2012, debate in Jacksonville, Fla.

Much like everything else in the GOP primary, the candidate debates — the first of which is two weeks from tonight — are afflicted with a case of Trump-itis. The thought of Donald Trump getting onto the stage while more thoughtful candidates are stuck watching from home is causing consternation among party officials and glee among those who would rather watch Trump harangue the other candidates in primetime than see someone like Carly Fiorina or John Kasich get a mic and raise her/his profile.

The format for that first debate, to be aired Aug. 6 on Fox News from Cleveland, site of the 2016 GOP convention, was set to include the top 10 candidates according to an average of five national polls. Having described yesterday why national primary polls are pretty much useless, and while understanding why debate organizers wanted to limit the field to a not-completely-unwieldy number, I think that’s a shame, for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with Trump. The standard debate format — journalists ask a question which everyone on stage gets to answer, after a long-winded opening statement and before a long-winded closing statement, with a chance for rebuttals when one candidate attacks another — is unhelpful for much of anything besides the sound-bite politics everyone claims to hate. It lends itself to the politics-as-entertainment that has put Trump atop some opinion polls. I don’t know if it’s too late for that first debate, but in the debates that follow I’d much rather see the following format.

The 16 most-recognized candidates — sorry, Jim Gilmore — are all invited to a two-hour debate. They are divided into four groups according to the polls, but they are not set apart by tiers. Rather, each group has someone from the top four candidates, someone from the next highest quartet, and so on. That way each group has a mixture, and viewers keen to see all the top candidates will have an incentive to watch the whole event. As an example, you could have the following groups:

1. Trump, Benjamin Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina

2. Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal

3. Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Kasich, Lindsey Graham

4. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, George Pataki

(Tell me you wouldn’t want to see folks like Trump and Christie, or Bush and Paul, or Walker and Kasich, or Rubio and Cruz, together in small groups like those!)

There are no opening statements. Instead, each group is randomly assigned (well before the debate) a topic such as foreign policy or the economy, and each candidate gets to start (in an order chosen by drawing numbers) a three- to four-minute discussion among the group about a specific point or question within that topic. (I’m making a guess as to how much air time time there would be for each segment once commercials and the usual introductions were factored in.) Then each candidate would get one minute as a kind of closing statement. Go to commercial, get the next group settled on stage, and move on to the next topic. The moderators would be there only to intervene in the unlikely event the candidates couldn’t keep things going on their own.

That’s it. Ideally, you’d do three or four of these so that each candidate got a chance to address multiple topics against a variety of debate partners. With five debates scheduled before the end of the year, and six before the Iowa caucuses get the voting officially under way, I don’t know why that couldn’t happen. There would still be chances for all the top candidates to face off against one another, probably after the field had been thinned a bit to allow for a more familiar format (though preferably without the opening statements; I really hate those).

For the GOP, the result would be a way to show off the depth of its field while separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. If you want to do that in a way that elevates the discussion while minimizing the chances a few bad seconds can derail an otherwise promising candidacy — or a few good seconds can boost an otherwise dead-end candidacy — this is your format.

Reader Comments 0

59 comments
M H Smith
M H Smith

Pew Research has released polling data that should serve as a wake-up call to the GOP. This morning I was thinking if the Republicans had their way the Federal budget would only consist of military spending and little else. 

Low and behold, I'm reading Pew's findings there in your (or my) face was the very same thinking(of mine), no not just by those in the Democrat Party column or the aligned wacko socialists left, no , the rude awakening in my morning coffee was that others Republicans are now thinking it too. 

Since January the GOP has lost 16 points in their approval rating from 86% to 68%. What might be more troubling from this Pew report is the Republican's drop in their favorable ratings on GOP key issues: Foreign policy, Taxes, Terrorist threat at home and gun control.


http://www.people-press.org/2015/07/23/gops-favorability-rating-takes-a-negative-turn/



I'm sure this can be spun differently but for Republicans, Pew's report should reveal to them they have to do a better job all the way around on "all the issues" and not just their issues if they expect to capture the prize. Not only do we need a balanced budget we need to balance the issues on our agenda. The American people will never accept a military spending only budget.




Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Kyle, you silly rabbit.  The GOP has already decided among the 4-5 candidates they want to see go forward.  The "debates" are nothing more than a dog and pony show to showcase the GOP favorites.


Trump scares the hell out of the GOP because he is talking about subjects the GOP wants to ignore and they cannot browbeat him into submission.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

It's too early to get worked up about anything at this point. A couple of very viable GOP candidates are recent entries.


Possible Trump could go third party, but I'm not sure he would and I'm not sure it would hurt the GOP as much as some who remember Perot might think. He may have some pull from the Democrats, too, on TV personality. The GOP base by-and-large is composed of people who play by the rules. Look at the Tea Party, they mainly play politics within the GOP, and this type of thing has been widely discussed and debated relatively recently by a lot of GOP base voters who are disenchanted with the RINO leadership. I do not sense any appetite for losing elections or falling on our swords, figuratively.


What all the MEDIA attention to Trump does is deflect media conversation about the other candidates. The core strengths of the leading candidates may not make headlines on the nightly news, but their supporters view the mainstream media with great distrust and don't really care about that. So to that extent Trump is like a huge shield taking the bulk of media attack machine blows and arrows aimed at the GOP. Keep it up.

lvg
lvg

Whoever gets hit in the face with the most pies from all the GOP clowns  gets bounced out and keep going until you get down to six clowns

Stan_Dup
Stan_Dup

Here's my proposal. If the Republicans Party is so lacking in a true front runner, why not follow sports and go to a playoff system? Use whatever you want to seed the candidates and have one-on-one debates until you get a winner. Heck, make it interesting and let ESPN do some kind of bracket competition. Sponsors could sell a lot of beer and chips, and if this continues for election after election, they could compile a future Classic Republican Debate series.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

I could go for that.

It's like frying in small batches to keep the temperature from dropping too low. 

stogiefogey
stogiefogey

Many folks, including moi, will tune in to the Republican debates just to watch the Trump Show.

People love it that he's not afraid to say what's on his mind and to ruffle a few establishment feathers. If he makes some of the stiffs on the stage uncomfortable all the better.

Kerry_James
Kerry_James

@stogiefogey If a night of condescending entertainment was the goal of these debates Trump would be apropos. 

Don Rickles would be the ideal running mate for Trump.  

Plumb Krazy
Plumb Krazy

Bush and Walker could drop out and give two of those hopefuls you talk about their spot. We know what they are about anyway, ...the status quo of chamber nut hineykissing.

M H Smith
M H Smith

@Plumb Krazy 

 Walker will stay, he is one of the top contenders, even though his only real claim to fame is standing down the unions. The debates mean valuable name recognition for him which Bush had from day one. 

Plumb Krazy
Plumb Krazy

@m h smith @Plumb Krazy Union bashing and Confederate flag bashing are two reasons I will stay home before I will burn gas to vote for Scott Walker.

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

Trump could win just as easy as any of the other GOP egos,  he will go rouge 3rd party if the GOP gets all pissy on him...is that what you really want ?

Question the Logic
Question the Logic

That is actually such a good idea it will never happen because we apparently don't let good ideas happen in politics anymore. I would actually watch every one of those debates. I wish you could actually make it happen. 

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

Gotta love the lefties' turning the GOPs abundance of candidates superior to their own into a negative.

Is it the GOP's relative diversity that gets to them?

Their limited slate of old white people doesn't impress Real Americans.

sssinff
sssinff

@LilBarryBailout


5% of the black vote

27% of the Hispanic vote

25% of the Asian vote

Gay support in the % single digits?


Oh yeah, please tell me more about the diversity in the party's support, not the tokens who may hold office.

HDB0329
HDB0329

@LilBarryBailout ...the nation needs visionaries....not a group of parrots that repeat the same thing over and over......and the GOP ain't it!!


NONE of the GOP knuckleheads have a vision of how to take the nation FORWARD......


Just like a car...R is for REVERSE!!!

M H Smith
M H Smith

I have noticed the  libs are trying to save Hillary despite her bad showing this early on in three swing states, even though half of the dem party supporters don't trust her. None of them seem to be backing Bernie Sanders publically (except at his rallies) who they all agree with, who is further to the hardcore radical left and more of what they wish to have in a President.


You can run Bernie, but you can't hide.

332-206
332-206

So, mh's 2016 election thinking is soo much improved.

Compared to his 2012 election thoughts...

M H Smith
M H Smith

@332-206 

The slate of our candidates has soooooooooooooo much improved.  

coj
coj

Trump will dominate the debates. And the only recourse for the other candidates is to attack Trump. But Trump mirrors his constituency. They're the loudest at tea party rallies, town hall meeting and abortion protests. They're the craziest and committed to voting for the most extreme candidate that encapsulate their rage and hatred. That's the psyche of a rabid Trump supporter. If Trump's supporters show up for the debates, I pity the rest of the debaters.

M H Smith
M H Smith

@coj 

Trump will try. Read Tramp's 19 point plan. Any one of the candidates in the top set of candidates should be able to rip him apart, if they can't we don't want him as President.   

M H Smith
M H Smith

You could probably trim the number of candidates down before the actual debates begin. It is real obvious, down below the 7 top contenders they only muddy the waters: Their other's low numbers say they can't win no matter how much we might favor one of them.    

M H Smith
M H Smith

Make room in that clown car for Hillary.

MarkVV
MarkVV

Kyle’s idea makes sense, which probably is why – a cynic would say – it will not happen. There is one weak point, I think – if the random assignment of topics is repeated in follow-up debates, it might result in some candidates getting the same topics and even same debate partners over and over. But that could be rectified fairly easily by making a provision in the way the assignments were made, barring that.

M H Smith
M H Smith

Hillary's favorable numbers are down in three swing states. In fact she only out done Trump in one of those states. 


WOW, says the MSNBC host. 

sssinff
sssinff

@m h smith


It's great how polling doesn't matter until you find an outlier or two that validate your own opinions.



sssinff
sssinff

@m h smith


That seems to be your argument. Democrats could nominate a cantaloupe and win. It's the demographic reality. The candidate of either party won't effect the outcome too much. Perhaps less than Obama's 332 electoral votes, but the dem nominee with own upward of 300 in 2016.

bu2
bu2

@sssinff @Kyle_Wingfield 

Well the Dems point is they do well when the least involved, least informed and least educated vote in high numbers.


So if more people who don't have a clue vote, the Democrats do well.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@sssinff I'm sorry, wasn't your point about diversity? And that a diverse electorate necessarily means Democratic wins?

Feel free to keep believing candidates don't matter and demography is destiny.

sssinff
sssinff

@Kyle_Wingfield


No, my point wasn't about diversity. Don't let your bias show, diversity =/= the full demographic story, viz. One party benefits when fewer citizens vote; the other party benefits when more citizens vote. It's the numbers! 36% of the voting eligible population cast a ballot in 2014. 58% of the voting eligible population cast a ballot in 2012. Are you truly making that claim that voter participation is not a determinant in electoral outcomes?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@sssinff So you're saying the "wrong" minorities voted in 2014? Because the proportion of voters who were white stayed the same, with a bit of change around the margins for black, Hispanic and Asian voters. If, as you suggested originally, "the demographic reality" is that an increasingly diverse electorate will put Democrats in office automatically (and btw I don't know how that claim, repeated many times by many progressives, isn't an insulting bit of "all minorities do/think X" logic, but that's a different topic) then why would it matter how many people voted if the proportions were the same? The whole basis of the "low turnout benefits Republicans" theory is that a lower turnout skews toward groups that tend to vote Republican. But if the groups that tend to vote Democrat showed up in the same proportions in a low-turnout election as a high-turnout election, why wouldn't Democrats have been just as apt to win?

Unless, of course, Democrats don't have a lock on that diverse electorate.

sssinff
sssinff

Trump is leading the GOP pack.....arguing that the debates need to be "trump proofed" is an insult to him and the many, many  bitter, aging, fearful GOP voters who support him.


Keep the debate as it is. I'm planning to cook up a kettle of popcorn and a great big pitcher of tea for the event!

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

There was something to be said for the smoke-filled back rooms after all, huh?


Seems patently ridiculous to me to worry about this debate, 16+ candidates, and the daily Donald Trump media circus at this stage, especially with real world swirling around us getting shoved out of the conversation. Donald Trump is not playing the public or the GOP or the GOP base for fools, he's playing the MEDIA for fools plain as day, and you're playing along enabling him.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@DawgDadII To be clear, I think this would be the best format even if Trump weren't doing so well in the polls. GOP voters need, particularly with such a large field, a way to get multiple people on the stage and hear something meaningful from them in a short amount of time. The fact that this would force Trump to do something beyond shout at people if he wants to be taken seriously is an added bonus.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

@Kyle_Wingfield @DawgDadII  I just don't know what it matters, especially at this point. A lot of these candidates are going to get clicked off the campaign trail pretty soon, and that might include leaders in popular opinion polls (remember Herman Cain?). This is all a game played out in the media, for the benefit of the media and parties/candidates raising campaign contributions (no race, no circus, fewer contributions). It matters who wins Iowa. Do a debate in Iowa, for the Iowans. It doesn't matter what any of the candidates say, certainly not at this point, ultimately we get stuck with a John McCain or Mitt Romney. Wake me up next year. You want to make the debate meaningful? Line up a primary election or screen-out vote for November 2015.

bu2
bu2

@DawgDadII 


What's important is a moderator who will turn off his mike when he tries to talk during other's time.

straker
straker

"that's it. ideally"


And, because that does make good sense, we may be certain it will never happen.

Totallyagree
Totallyagree

Two weeks before the first debate and you want to move the goal post and change the scoring. The debate process was thoughtfully instituted by the GOP and now you want a do over!

Sure this make the GOP and their candidates look like a clown act but it looks good in them.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

I'll go one better. For those four-person groups, have them sit around a table, with some moderator they've all agreed upon to help manage the time, no audience.

Let 'em talk it out, make their case amongst themselves and to the viewing audience. Show some give and take, of the sort that actually goes on in policy decision meetings?

I saw something like this some elections back, on PBS. Pretty sure it was a Democratic primary group, but that wasn't really important. Probably the most pleasant such debate I've ever seen.

Wish they'd try it. 

(And about the audiences--they are pretty ridiculous, when you think about it. Do we really need what amounts to a laugh track for these things?)

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

@Visual_Cortex

Pretty sure it was a Democratic primary group...

Sounds like Gingrich's Lincoln-Douglas approach. Only two contenders accepted Gingrich's invitation...Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman.

Caius
Caius

I can think of no reason to have a debate before January 2016.