Ten Miles Square


February 27, 2013 12:00 PM How About Limiting Presidential Nomination Debates?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Josh Putnam has an interesting item up about talk within the GOP of finding a way to limit debates during the next nomination cycle. I agree with him that it’s unlikely that they’ll wind up doing it through the rules.

He also walks us through some of the incentives. As he notes, frontrunners presumably prefer to have few debates; longshots want more. It’s also true that minority groups and factions within the party might prefer more debates; they give those voices within the party an opportunity to be heard.

One might also say that the candidates as a group might have some interest in having the party clamp down on the number of debates. There’s a bit of a collective action problem here. Candidates, regardless of their strategic incentives, are known to not especially like having a schedule dominated by debates, but they of course have strong incentives to show up once someone schedules one.

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of crank “candidates” who basically have no real interest or chance of winning a nomination but are primarily in it to win a Fox News contract (or MSNBC show). The problem for the parties is that the debates tend to be the face of the party (especially during the year before Iowa, when there’s no election results to drive the coverage) and a few of those crank candidates can really distort the party’s image.

As far as the incentives to hold debates: in addition to interest from trailing candidates and crank candidates, there’s also the interest of host groups (who like the attention, whether it’s local parties or universities or other groups) and the TV folks, especially the cable news networks, who get inexpensive, relatively high-profile programming.

Against that, in addition to the frontrunning candidates who don’t want to give their opponents a platform and the (real) candidates collectively who don’t like doing to many of them is the interest of the party, collectively, in the free publicity. After all, if you actually are putting on a good show, it presumably is going to make the party look good!

My guess is that you would find the parties’ attitudes towards debates totally dominated, then, by their impression of how the last round went. Sometimes (Democrats in 2008, perhaps Republicans in 2000) the debates are perceived as successful. Sometimes (Republicans 2012) they are not.

But getting back to Josh’s point…when you have something like this where the parties’ perceptions change from cycle to cycle, it’s really unlikely that you’re going to get reform by rules. After all, it’s hard enough to come up with rules to push the caucuses and primaries back, and for that one the party-as-party has a clear and consistent interest in doing it.

And the real important thing for the Republicans, it seems to me, is to figure out some way to either get those crank candidates off the stage or, at least, make them behave themselves even though all the incentives for them work the other way (how do you get a Fox News gig if you don’t say outrageous things?). How to do that, however, I have no idea.

[Originally posted at The Reality-based Community]

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


  • alwaysiamcaeasar on February 27, 2013 2:09 PM:

    Separating the spectacle of a PT Barnum from a working Henry Clay seems to be the point . The PT Barnum's now are just so much more common among the expanded numbers of an industrially propped population . Understanding this as well as the quiet mien of the compromise , that is the vehicle of policy , a Henry Clay never will be noticed quietly engineering policy in the monastic cell he would be most welcomed to , in the all new PT Barnum version of a Republican party .
    Now , with a House budget chiefs honest blood , sweat , and tears put into avoiding the arcane employment of arithmetic while conjuring up a budget that from one side of his mouth is a devastating vampiric assault on Medicare , and from the other side is the spine upon which he meets the crudest expectation of believing two plus two equals something material in saving seven hundred million dollars in ten years .
    In order for this buttoned down lad of forty or so years to express his rural , oh gosh , sincerity , at his side fawns his mother , or , other family members who can attest to the striplings earnest longings for a Schwinn AeroCycle in every lads dreams . This is his dream except he is so inured by his Randian romances that he has developed a habitual shyness around facts , arithmetic , and only an abstruse book layrnin about a virtually extinct species of the truth . This aggregated with the unpleasantness of Randian sex , which means rough and tumble rape to the authorities , has left the little pilgrim the odd appearance of an earnest boy scout psychopath . Pitch perfect for a Zombie queue , or a Republican voting event that curiously fails to provide leadership on jobs , jobs , Jobs , while dutifully noting that the bible out Darwin's Darwin .
    So a forced detachment from the repeatable events in a normal day , sans police , and the earnest devotion of a starving cannibal is the frame around the modest hero of the smart set in Republican think tanks that only the perfectly blind can dream of , and wish for . With the gravitas of a High School debate team , after their first beer , repeating the same whoppers that make salesmen the envy of undertakers everywhere . These think tanks sponsor of the words for the noble savants to read off the teleprompter's as they savage the thorn in their side who has twice electorally walloped them , and is preparing the ground for the public evisceration of them , for doing as they do , not as they say .
    I am going out on a limb here while reaching for the Republican Conquistador within my gentle frame to say ,
    ........................................................................No !
    No Sir or Ma'am , from the Fraternity House that is populated by the eternal Eddie Haskel's fellows of infinite jest , of most febrile fancy ; they hath borne a horror on their back a thousand times ; and how abhorred in imagination it is that those free loading moochers have ridden on some back unpaid ?
    The Horror , the Horror ...