The GOP’s Debate Conundrum (II)
The requirements for the Republican primary debates are creating problems for some of the new and has-been candidates:
New rules that limit the number of contenders on stage during the first Republican presidential debates are likely to alter the campaign calculations for many of the GOP candidates, forcing them to try to build national name recognition months earlier than planned.
Some of the candidates likely to be excluded from the first debates are new and really are lacking in name recognition, and keeping them out of the debates does make it even less likely that they will have any impact on the race. This is to some degree arbitrary and “unfair,” but it’s also true that the first-time candidates that won’t make the cut add little or nothing to the debate that won’t already be there. Fiorina is a somewhat unconventional candidate, but her views are utterly conventional. Given the large number of hawkish candidates that are sure to be running, Graham’s presence is the race is at best redundant. The party doesn’t miss out on anything if they aren’t included. Moreover, there is no faction that will be shut out of the debates if they are not permitted to participate. There will be more than enough Clinton-bashing and hard-line foreign policy nonsense as it is. There has be a line drawn somewhere, and obviously hopeless ego-driven candidacies should be the first to go. The field might eventually swell to almost 20 declared candidates before it’s all over, and there’s simply no way to accommodate them all without turning the entire process into an even bigger circus than it already is.
There are also several also-ran candidates from previous cycles that are lagging in the polls because they simply have no support. Santorum is hardly unknown to Republican primary voters this time around. Nonetheless, he is the preferred candidate of almost no one. This drives home that his status as the “runner-up” in 2012 had almost nothing to do with his merits as a candidate. Santorum’s 2012 success reflected the extent to which many primary voters didn’t want Romney as their nominee, and because of that there is almost no residual support for Santorum from his previous campaign. Perry is likewise nationally very well-known, but he still gets almost no support. His problem is that he is most familiar to voters because of his bungled debate appearances in 2011. Perry had his chance four years ago and blew it, and there doesn’t appear to be much interest in giving him another one.
Kasich is in a slightly different position. 2016 would be the second time he has run for president, but it would be the first time that he has run as a conceivably plausible nominee. He has been a fixture in national Republican politics for twenty years, but he is also fairly obscure when compared to many of his contemporaries from the class of 1994. He probably has the best claim of any of the laggards to being included in the debate, but he has also been one of the least active of the would-be 2016 candidates. A Kasich candidacy is one of those that makes sense “on paper” but would most likely come to nothing in practice. The party probably would be worse off if Kasich weren’t included, but I’m not sure how much it would matter to the eventual outcome either way.
The GOP has this debate problem in part because it encourages activists and voters to believe that the party is overflowing with potential presidents. Republicans don’t have so many likely candidates this year because they have so many more people genuinely qualified to be president, but rather because they flatter most halfway famous politicians and movement favorites by pretending that any of them could and should be president. This creates a glut of candidates in an open election year that could have been avoided if unqualified and no-hope candidates were discouraged from running in the first place.