Monday, March 18, 2013

Could Postponing Debates Matter?

I'm going to look at the GOP presidential nomination process suggested reforms out today, 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.


  1. I'd like to inject a comparison point: after the Obama/Clinton primary, which cost a ton of money and dragged on for a long time, Democrats were largely satisfied with the process, if not the result. This can be contrasted with Republican's reactions to Romney's experience.

    One could argue that since Obama went on to win, Democrats had nothing to complain about. But is that really the answer?

    1. Part of it I believe is that Dems went on to win. There's a tendency in post-election analysis to think the winners did everything right and the losers everything wrong, and certainly the losers are more likely to spend time dwelling on what they could have done differently.

      Still, I don't think it's the whole explanation. Despite how contentious the 2008 Hillary-Obama fight became, both candidates were still widely liked by Democratic voters. You can see the difference in a poll Gallup conducted a few times in the 2008 cycle and once in the 2012 cycle: it asked primary voters whether they considered particular candidates "acceptable." Most of the Republican candidates like McCain, Romney, and Gingrich never scored higher than the 50s on that question. But Democratic candidates like Hillary, Obama, and Edwards got in the 70s and 80s. In other words, Democrats appear to have been a lot more satisfied with their choices than Republicans were with theirs. And that leads Republicans to look more bitterly at the Romney-Gingrich-Santorum fight in 2012 than the Democrats view the Hillary-Obama episode from '08.


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