Who Gets In The Primary Debates? A Serious Question For Republicans

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Jonathan Martin is out with a good piece today, which raises an important question: Who will be allowed in the GOP primary debates?

This is a surprisingly difficult question with huge ramifications. The problem is that it potentially pits two important goals against each other.

First, it would be nice to actually have an intelligent debate — but that’s impossible when you have too many candidates on stage. It not only looks ridiculous (memes are already popping up), but more importantly, it spawns raise your hands if you don’t believe in evolution-type questions. As one Republican involved in the process told Martin, “a 90-minute forum with 10 candidates would offer each candidate only four to five minutes, after subtracting commercials and moderator time.”

On the other hand, the power to exclude is the power to destroy. If someone is included in the debates, they are granted a certain imprimatur. If someone is excluded from the debates, they are assumed to be politically dead. And, in a way, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s is a Catch-22: You can’t get into the debates unless you’re polling at a certain threshold … but you can’t increase your poll numbers unless you get into the debates… Would Mike Huckabee have caught fire in 2008 had he been excluded from early debates?

Of course, this doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive proposition. Maybe there are creative ways to have real debates that are also inclusive? According to Martin, allies of Bobby Jindal have floated the idea of “back-to-back debates, with seven or eight candidates, chosen at random, in each.”

That might sound crazy, but there are multiple variables at play here:

Many Republicans laboring to improve the party’s image recoil from the prospect that whatever debate-eligibility criteria are adopted could result in the barring of the only woman, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, or Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who is the only African-American candidate.

But could Republicans include Ms. Fiorina and Mr. Carson while keeping out such low-polling candidates as Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas or even Donald Trump?

Carson and Fiorina have never been elected to anything, yet offer diversity and freshness to the field. But how can you include them and not include the longest-serving governor in Texas history — or the governor of Ohio who garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in his 2014 re-election?

The idea being pushed by Team Jindal might not be so crazy after all.

Note: The author’s wife formerly advised Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC.