Rick Perry’s 2011 “Oops” illustrated how debates can make or break a campaign. In January, the RNC announced nine debates between August 2015 and February 2016, with the possibility of adding three additional debates in March 2016. The exceptional number of candidates in the primary has made each debate more crucial for candidates, but creates logistical problems. The largest debate stage in 2011 only held nine candidates including longshot candidates Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the eventual Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. This year, the debate stage could be filled with as many as 17 candidates vying for the nomination, leading Fox News and CNN to impose rules to limit the number of candidates on the stage, and forced other outlets to turn to smaller candidate forums.
The first debate is just under a month away, but the large number of candidates has been drawing more and more interest as the number of candidates expands. Both Fox News and CNN, hosts of the first and second debate respectively, have acknowledged that 17 candidates on a single debate stage would likely be a disaster. To counter this issue both have released rules that allow only 10 candidates to participate.
The Fox News debate will take place on August 6th in Cleveland. In May, the network laid out rules candidates must follow to be included in the debate. These rules, laid out in a press release, include requirements that the candidates meet all U.S. Constitutional requirements, have announced and registered their formal campaigns, have filed all required FEC paperwork and paid all necessary federal and state fees, and, most importantly, the candidate, “must place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls…” The release goes on to state that polls must, “be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.” Though Fox’s rules seem simple enough, questions remain. Will the stage expand to 11 in the event of a tie? Which pollsters will be included and will their results be weighted in any way? Rick Santorum criticized the rules calling them “arbitrary” and pointed out that in 2012 he won the Iowa caucuses despite only polling nationally at four percent.
CNN will host the second debate on September 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Like Fox, CNN has announced that they will also limit their debate stage to 10 candidates, however their rules are more specific. In addition to the rules laid out by Fox, CNN requires that each candidate have at least one paid campaign staffer in and have traveled to at least two of the first four states. CNN’s rules lay out more specific requirements for the polls that will be included in their averages including. The polls must be conducted by live interviewers and must be sponsored by one of 14 sources including CNN, Fox, or Pew, among others. In the event of a tie the 10th spot will be determined by more recent polls with a second tiebreaker based on state specific polling.
With 17 candidates and only 10 debate spots at each of the first two debates, news outlets and candidates are looking for other means to get out their messages. Candidate forums are an important venue for the candidates with low name recognition because they give candidates a chance to make individual statements. The RNC bars candidates from taking part in unsanctioned debates leaving candidates to participate in forums to gain exposure.
Fox News, CNN, The New Hampshire Union Leader, and The Washington Post in conjunction with Univision have all announced candidate forums. The Fox News and Union Leader forums will both take place on August 6th before the first debate. The Fox News forum will allow candidates who did not reach the debate stage to appear on national media. The Union Leader forum will compete with the Fox News forum. Joseph McQuaid, publisher of the Union Leader, announced the forum saying that Fox’s attempt to “winnow the field of candidates” was bad for the primary process. The Washington Post and Univision forum will take place in March 2016.
The high number of candidates has added pressure on debates and forums. Candidates with low name recognition will be vying to gain national exposure while more notable candidates will be fighting to highlight their experience. Debate rules limiting the number of people on the stage will undoubtedly make it more difficult for many candidates to get their messages out, however some will be able to make it up during a forum.