The Republican presidential field is soon to be overflowing with candidates, which makes it all but impossible to include them all in the primary debates. Jonathan Bernstein recommends excluding a number of them:

So exclusions have to be balanced against the party’s interest in maintaining as much influence as possible on the rest of the decisions about the debates.

“Unfairly” excluding a candidate such as Trump is unlikely to cause much trouble. But ruling out seemingly qualified candidates, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, or even more more marginal choices such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, could create headaches — especially if the omissions would insult important groups in the party.

There is a certain logic to wanting to limit the number of candidates in the early debates. It’s undeniable that the quality of the debates, such as it is, can only be improved by having fewer participants. Accommodating even ten candidates typically leaves all contenders with too little time to say anything informative, and it often leads moderators to use hand-raising gimmicks that tell the audience even less. Trying to fit in another five or eight candidates beyond that does seem absurd and impractical. But that in itself points to the source of the problem: the GOP’s inability or unwillingness to winnow its redundant candidates much earlier on.

There is something more than a little absurd about having so many candidates in the race, especially when most of them are just echoing one another on everything. If these candidates are too ridiculous or implausible to be permitted on the same debate stage with the leading candidates, why are they being taken even slightly seriously as candidates in the first place? Graham has been in a Congress a long while, but his function in a presidential debate as the hawkish scold would be be indistinguishable from that of John Bolton. Both are wasting everyone’s time, but of the two of them party officials are prepared to say so only in Bolton’s case. Fiorina is a no-hoper’s no-hoper, but there is little chance the party will want to be seen excluding the sole female candidate from the debates, and if she is included how can the party defend excluding anyone?

The trouble with excluding some candidates and allowing others to stay is that it is inevitably arbitrary. The officials making the decision are likely to misjudge which candidates merit inclusion. Candidates that are deemed part of the “top tier” by pundits and party officials can sometimes be complete flops with the voters when the time comes (see Pawlenty, Tim), and on occasion the debates have served as the springboard for one of the lesser-known candidates to rise to be one of the top competitors in the race. When polling is used to determine who should be allowed in, that treats early polling as if it were a meaningful measure of support rather than the name recognition test that it really is. People tend to say they prefer candidates that are already familiar to them. Meanwhile, candidates that aren’t already well-known before the debates end up being barred from the venues where they are most likely to become familiar to more voters. The danger in relying on polling is that little-known candidates with decent credentials will be passed over while uncompetitive celebrity candidates are allowed in.

The GOP’s other debate problem is that there are very few discernible policy differences among the many candidates. The debates will be extremely dull and hard to watch no matter how many candidates are on the stage. Excluding half or two-thirds of the candidates from the debates wouldn’t have much of an effect on the substance of the views expressed in those debates, so it’s not as if voters are being deprived of a perspective they aren’t already getting. It would be one thing if the 12+ candidates offered a range of views on a number of issues, but as it is they are mostly just going to be affirming the same positions with differing degrees of intensity and according to different performance styles. Since that is the case, we don’t really need to hear twelve versions of the same answers on taxes or Israel or school choice.

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