How to Fix an Unfair Presidential Debate System

by Stuart Rothenberg May 28, 2015 · 11:35 AM EDT

Fox News and CNN, which will broadcast the first two GOP presidential debates, have decided on a system for excluding candidates that could result in Donald Trump participating in those debates but current or former senators and governors being excluded.

Nice going, guys.

I certainly agree having a debate with 16 candidates is simply unwatchable, and there is no easy way to make the early debates fair to the candidates while at the same time more watchable and informative for viewers. But Fox and CNN have both dropped the ball as they try to avoid making tough decisions.

At the first debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, Fox will limit participation to candidates who “place in the top 10 in an average of the five most recent national polls in the run-up to the event.” Fox apparently will “provide additional coverage and air time on Aug. 6 to the candidates who do not place in the top 10.”

CNN has chosen a similar-but-not-identical approach that is also based on polling leading up to the debate. It will hold two separate forums, one for the top-tier hopefuls and a second for the also-rans.

Fox and CNN, along with the Republican National Committee, can (and surely will) argue they are not excluding candidates from the first debate, the public is. And I’m sure they will say that with a straight face.

Even debate veterans privately admit 10 participants are too many. Most of the early GOP debates last time, from August to November 2011, included only eight candidates, and that was bad enough.

But 10 is a nice round number, and it allows Fox and CNN to claim they have found a reasonable balance between having too many hopefuls and arbitrarily excluding some. It’s a classic cover-your-behind strategy.

But limiting the field to 10 participants means as many as six hopefuls could be excluded from the meaningful debates. Sure, CNN will have a loser’s bracket, but much like the NIT basketball tournament, nobody will care. Being the best of the losers isn’t exactly a winning outcome.

The two networks could end up excluding the only woman in the Republican field (businesswoman Carly Fiorina), the only African-American in the field (Ben Carson) or the only other candidate of color in the race (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal). For a party that needs to remake its image, excluding candidates who are not white men is a novel strategy.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul would all appear to have guaranteed slots in the debate. That leaves room for five others. Who could be excluded?

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the last Republican to have won the Iowa caucuses, but he could be excluded. The same goes for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won those caucuses in 2008.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is about to announce his candidacy, but he doesn’t yet have a campaign. He could be on the outside looking in, even though he is a sitting senator from the second primary state. Not only that, but Graham has become one of his party’s leading voices on national security issues. Oh well, who cares about those issues anyway?

Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich appears poised to enter the race, but also has no real campaign yet. He may not be able to ramp up quickly enough to make the top 10 cut. But the first debate is in Cleveland, which, the last time I looked, is still in Ohio. And Ohio remains one of the key states in 2016. Oh, what the heck, he’s only the governor.

The rest of the field includes former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Gov. George Pataki and the aforementioned Trump.

Right now, Trump would make the cutoff, and because of his celebrity status he might very well meet the criteria later this year when the first two debate fields are set. Yet, I think we all know Trump is a carnival barker, not a credible contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Clearly, any effort to limit the field will generate complaints and criticism. But any approach that limits the field so early in the race, at least five months before the first contest involving voters, seems inherently unfair. And using national polls to select participants in early debates seems odd when the first few actual tests of strength involve small, retail politics states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

After all, we are talking about the first debate or the first couple of debates, not the fifth. Each candidate can rightly argue he or she deserves to be in the first few debates, since those televised events will be the first time many Republican voters will have the opportunity to evaluate and compare the candidates.

The obvious answer is to divide the field in half, randomly assigning individual hopefuls to one of the two debates. Of course, not everyone will like the group he or she is in, and the makeup of each group would determine the particular dynamic of that debate.

After a couple of debates, the hosts of additional debates will have just cause to limit the number of debaters. But doing so in the first couple of debates is inherently unfair and could end up damaging the party’s image. You’d think that that would be something the RNC would want to avoid.