Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Incentives in Limiting Presidential Nomination Debates

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.


  1. It seems to me particularly tough to reign in the cranks because of all the polling 'surges' last time around, many of which are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be the result of strong debate performances. It's going to be very hard to imagine future marginal candidates not taking a lesson from that.

  2. I wouldn't call the publicity hounds like Newt and Cain "crank candidates". That term should be reserved for true believers who have beliefs actually at odds with the party. Of whom oddly enough we don't have as many Republican "presidential candidates" as we used to (Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Bob Dornan)..

  3. Anyone have a link to who sponsored them all? Or a list of them all?

    I'm wondering if that problem is solved simply by calling Roger Ailes and telling him to only sponsor one.

    1. Quickly, I found 6 debates sponsored by Fox.

      I found 13 sponsored by Fox and/or a state party.

      If we assume "the party" has some measure of control over these entities....then yes, the parties can actually cut these numbers dramatically.

    2. Do you think Fox News would listen to the RNC on something like that? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.

      Not sure about the state parties, either.

    3. Ah, but that's why I went to the trouble to put "the party" in quotes!

      There aren't ads during the debates, so Fox has little in money at stake. It's about reputation, and about weighing in on the debates they care about. Will Fox be miffed if CNN hosts more debates than they do, when they're the HOME of the GOP? Sure. Can Roger Ailes be talked off that ledge? Yes, and it shouldn't be too hard.

      As for state parties, remember, the GOP is looking to also get Ames to matter less as well, despite it making a bunch of money for the IA GOP. It's not all about the organizations; actors within the GOP seem to be seriously entertaining the notion that "teh krazy" is hurting them in general elections. However, they're loathe to turn off that money and foot solider spigot. So, they're pushing on what levers they have to nudge things.

      If Fox gets the message that they need to treat Ames as a non-event, they can easily do that. Similarly, Fox can book the candidates to do spots in the days around when debates would have happened, and milk those appearances. Or, invent Benghazi or focus on a missing blond girl or whatever. They can gin up outrage at fake stories; they don't need the debates to drive coverage. It's not just about Fox, but the point extends to the rest of conservative media, and pundits, too. If the party having the debates says debates don't matter, then they won't matter. Once they don't matter, they don't happen.

    4. First, a fact: there are ads during debates. I should know -- I watched ever damn one of them in this last cycle.

      Generally: Fox "can easily" ignore Ames, but *will* they? I don't know. If they find it in their interest, it's not at all clear that some other Republicans can convince them otherwise.

    5. I don't remember ads, myself, but I mostly just read recaps, so I'll take your correction. Still think that the direct financial aspect of debates is likely not a major consideration for Fox.

      That just circles back around to the question of whether Fox exists as its own distinct actor in the GOP system, or as more of a conduit for various factions to communicate/contest questions.

      I'm positing here that Fox is mostly an ARM of the party, and therefore, subject to its whims. Ditto for state party organizations, in that any party organization is mostly just a forum for factions to contest the future of the party (an argument that you would be sympathetic too, I would think.

      Essentially, what I'm saying is "if the factions that make up the GOP collectively decide to limit the debates, individual actors (such as candidates or non-GOP aligned media outlets) that put on debates will find it difficult to do too many debates." There would be rebels, sure. But they should be able to police their own house....unless the factions don't actually agree! I'm under no illusions that they could get rid of the tea party debate(s). So, if debates continue to proliferate, we could take that as evidence of either candidate-centeredness OR intra-party divisions.

      I know, it's a very functionalist argument (if something is a certain way, it's because people want it that way). And, frontloading as a force kinda pushes back against the notion that even the modern, fairly homogenous parties can completely solve factional disputes.

  4. I disagree that the Republican party has an incentive to rein in the cranks. The cranks increase base enthusiasm and enforce party purity and identification.

    You're assuming that they want to court independents.


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