The first Republican presidential debate is less than two months away, and there has already been plenty of complaints about host network Fox News' decision to allow just 10 members of the massive GOP field to participate. But if that's not the best way to manage a debate in a way that's fair to the candidates and helpful to voters, what is?
It’s a tricky situation. The GOP has an unusually large and growing field with as many as 18 hopefuls eyeing a run. Having that many people on stage at one time would almost certainly devolve into chaos -- not an ideal environment for voters to learn about the candidates. But the Fox rules -- permitting the top 10 based on an average of the five most recent national polls -- means some very big names wouldn't make the cut.
Based on current polling, candidates and would-be candidates in the danger zone include former Pennsylvania senator and onetime 2012 presidential front-runner Rick Santorum; Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana; Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; former Gov. George Pataki of New York; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Not exactly nobodies.
Fox News noted in a statement given to msnbc that the network would provide additional coverage and air time on Aug. 6 for those candidates who don’t make it to the top 10.
CNN, which is holding a GOP debate on Sept. 16, meanwhile, is dealing with the large field in a different manner, dividing the debate in two parts, one with candidates who rank in the top 10 based on polling, and another for candidates who crack at least 1% in the polls but are still ranked outside the top 10.
But is there a better way? Debate experts have a number of alternatives they believe would make the Q&As more inclusive and more meaningful to voters.
A multi-night debate: “All the candidates should be included. It could be not just one night, but two nights – as straightforward as that,” said Chris Jahnke, a political communications specialist who helped Joe Lieberman with his debate preparation as a vice presidential candidate in 2000. Jahnke insisted it was “too early in the process” to narrow down participants to just 10.
Yes on polling, but ask a different question: “Fox's first misstep is that they use polls that ask people whom they will vote for, which isn't relevant in deciding who debates. Plus, their polls force respondents to pick only one candidate. When you can only pick one, support artificially divides among similar candidates. This blurs any real meaning from the results,” said Aaron Hamlin, the director of the Center for Election Science. “For debate inclusion, the best polling question to use is, ‘Would you like to see this candidate in the debates?’ Then let people answer, ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ or ‘No Opinion.’ If people say yes more than no for a candidate, then let that candidate debate. This asks a relevant question and lets people give a full response. Candidates that walk on stage will be there only because people wanted them there.”
Channeling March Madness: “You could do a playoff round where it’s almost NCAA brackets,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV” and journalism professor at Northeastern University. “You could literally have four rounds at a time, and you could let voters and viewers vote in real time on who won wand who gets to advance to the next round ... People advance up the line, until you get to the final group.”
'American Idol' style: James Roland, a debate coach and senior director of community debate programs at Emory University, suggested all the candidates be allowed to speak at first. Then, viewers and potential voters could vote online and decide who they want to hear more from – whittling down the field to a smaller group—like eight or four candidates. “Those who have resonated the most would get to discuss more about their ideas ... It’s a format that hasn’t been used before that would bring another level of interest. A lot of the public is used to watching game shows or reality TV and this would bring a new level of competition, like the NBA finals.”
Randomly split the field: Sure, it’s in their self-interest, but some candidates have pitched their own solution. Santorum has suggested randomly dividing the field in half and having two debates (but not based on polling as CNN will do). He recently told reporters, “If you’re a United States senator, if you’re a governor, if you’re a woman who ran a Fortune 500 company and you’re running a legitimate campaign for president, then you should have the right to be on stage with everyone else.”