Workers prepare the stage for the Fox News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina GOP debate at the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center on Jan. 16, 2012 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. 
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty

Creating the wrong kind of political incentives

The ground rules for the first round of Republican presidential debates have taken shape, and at least for now, they don’t seem to have many fans. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has helped lead the charge, likely because he’ll be excluded given the current criteria, but Ben Carson has also been critical, despite the fact that he’s all but certain to make the cut.
 
Roll Call’s Stu Rothenberg called the current rules “unfair” and recommended an alternative approach:
The obvious answer is to divide the field in half, randomly assigning individual hopefuls to one of the two debates. Of course, not everyone will like the group he or she is in, and the makeup of each group would determine the particular dynamic of that debate.
 
After a couple of debates, the hosts of additional debates will have just cause to limit the number of debaters. But doing so in the first couple of debates is inherently unfair and could end up damaging the party’s image. You’d think that that would be something the RNC would want to avoid.
Despite the recent criticism, there’s been no indication from party officials or the relevant networks that the recently announced criteria for participation may be revisited.
 
One of the under-appreciating angles to the problem is the system of incentives debate organizers have inadvertently created.
 
On the show on Friday night, Steve Kornacki touched on this in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere:
“Let’s try to play this out. We’re getting close to the first Fox debate that is going to be in Cleveland. And you’re looking at a group of – you know, I don’t know - - seven, eight candidates who are all, as we say, the difference between being at 3 percent or 2 percent in the polls is the difference between getting in this debate and getting shut out.
 
“Is that going to put sort of an incentive, sort of a premium on doing something outlandish, something outrageous, just to get attention and just to make sure you’re on stage?”
Remember, only the top 10 candidates get to stand on the stage, but in a field as large as the GOP’s, the difference between the #9 slot and the #12 slot is likely to be very small – probably about a percentage point.
 
What does this have to do with incentives? Because national polls are the metric that matters – a dubious metric, to be sure, but this is what the RNC and the networks have agreed upon – any candidate on the cusp of making the top 10 will soon realize that a big, national spectacle could be worth a point or two in the polls, which in turn could make the difference between joining the debate and watching it on TV.
 
In other words, it’s suddenly easy to imagine staffers for several candidates telling their boss, “Get ready to say something truly outrageous – something that will draw widespread condemnations and public discussion – because offending people may catapult you onto the stage.”
 
Watch this space.
 

Debates

Creating the wrong kind of political incentives