According to a new report from POLITICO, the next Republican presidential debate will be far less crowded than its predecessors. Fox Business Network, hosting the debate from Des Moines on January 28, is limiting the main stage to candidates in the top six nationally. Contenders can also gain entrance to the debate with a top five spot in the most recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls. These rules could send Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich down to the secondary stage.
If numbers stay the same between now and January 11 – the last day polling results will be considered – it would give us a main stage debate featuring Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz.
The Democratic debates, though suffering from Clinton’s inevitability, have been much more effective in letting the candidates get their messages across. These Republican debates have been so crowded that candidates spend more time complaining about airtime than answering questions. It may be dramatic to watch the candidates turn on the moderators, but how does it help Americans decide the next president?
It’s time to thin the herd. It would have been nice to see some more Republicans voluntarily drop out of the contest by now, but hey, that VP nod isn’t going to come out of nowhere. If they aren’t willing to do it themselves, then Fox is doing the right thing.
This way, the next debate can be a clarifying event. Six candidates is probably still too many, but we’re on the right track. With a field this size, candidates will have a chance to expound on their ideas without being interrupted by going-nowhere competitors who want to get noticed.
At the outset of this campaign season, many observers were irritated by Fox’s use of national polls to winnow the main stage to a manageable number. But in the absence of a better solution, it was accepted. Now, the polls are a little more meaningful. There are probably still millions of low-information voters who haven’t made up their minds, but we’re not going to see George Pataki suddenly rocket up the polls.
Debates, as a concept, have questionable worth. Winners and losers are determined by irrelevant factors like who has memorized the better foreign policy details. By who came up with the best attack lines. And, largely, by which highlights make the morning shows. How is any of this strengthening our democracy?
Still, they aren’t going anywhere, and they are probably preferable to political ads that are more about sizzle than steak. If this is the way we’re going to elect presidents, then we should at least make these debates as helpful as possible.