In the aftermath of the 2012 election and its endless rounds of primary debates, the Republican party determined that in 2016 they would avoid the circular firing squad that election’s primary debate season entailed. Instead of endless candidate debates featuring every jackal who was a declared Republican presidential candidate, they would set a public opinion poll requirement for debate participation. After some back and forth, they set the bar at the top 10 candidates, meaning that the top 10 candidates in national polls would be invited to participate in the 2016 election debates.
Back when the rules were set, it seemed like a reasonable approach. The chances of more than 10 serious candidates seemed slim. This top 10 strategy expected to limit internal sniping and backbiting and lend itself to a serious discussion of the nation’s issues. Missing from this discussion was the established knowledge of political scientists: early polls are generally name recognition measures and are typically useless when it comes to determining who will emerge as a party’s nominee. That piece of knowledge turns out to be very important.
Republican candidate debates start this month, more than 14 months before the election. In keeping with the rules set a few years back, of the 17 candidates (well, 17 as of this writing) only the top 10 polling candidates will be involved. A system that seemed to make sense has instead created a perverse incentive. To attract early polling numbers, standing that is essential for continued debate participation, a candidate needs to attract attention. And what attracts attention the most is over-the-top words and behavior.
With Donald Trump and his ridiculous rhetoric now coming in number 1, the bar for candidates has been set. And the bar demands attracting media attention. Full stop. We all agree that Trump has virtually no serious candidate creds but every time he says something the mainstream media trips over itself to report the inanity……hateful attacks on undocumented immigrants, boneheaded claims about his ability to manage the economy, attacks on John McCain’s bravery as a veteran…..nothing is beyond Trump’s reach and therefore the media’s attention. The remaining candidates strain to achieve the Trump standard: to the sounds of metal rock, Rand Paul takes a chainsaw to the tax code and releases a video for our enjoyment. Lindsay Graham films himself destroying his cell phone, an act seemingly necessary after Trump told the world his phone number. Chris Christie deploys his patented Jersey charm, insulting those who ask questions while he’s on the campaign trail.
The Republican debate rules have created candidates who are Saturday Night Live parodies of serious candidates. As a Democratic voter, I’ll confess that I am somewhat entertained by the ridiculous race to buffoonery that GOP rules have stimulated. But as a citizen who believes that honest political discourse is a real and important obligation of elections in a democratic nation, I’m horrified by Republican candidates who offer a healthcare platform of repealing ACA in favor of “something terrific.” Thanks, Mr. Trump, but I want a few more details on what “terrific” looks like.