Debating the debates

Republican-Presidential-ContendersWe don’t quite know how many Republicans will be running for president when the campaign kicks off in earnest with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Some possible candidates have not declared. Some have not officially declared – which triggers a process by which their expenditures are controlled. Some of those who have declared might pull out before the end of this year. Your columnist’s best guess is that there will be between 15 and 20. 

This is too many for an orderly debate in which each candidate gets some realistic screen time and allows for back and forth on key issues. Some media want to limit the debates to the top ten candidates. The problem is that with support spread so widely and a margin of error on the polls, the rank order is pretty meaningless. The RealClearPolitics average currently has Bobby Jindal last (15th) with one percent. But with a three percent margin of error, he could be on four percent, which is ninth place and that would put him in the debate. Jeb Bush tops the poll with 11.3%. If that is actually 8.3% then he is sixth. 

Excluding the bottom five has another problem. It would exclude the smartest candidate (Jindal), the only woman (Carly Fiorina) the one with the best business experience (Fiorina again), the most experienced (John Kasich) the most articulate advocate of a hawkish defense policy (Lindsey Graham) and the runner-up from the last election (Rick Santorum). 

Another option is to have two tiers of debate: the top ten, but also a ‘kiddies table’ of the remaining seven or eight, but this hits the same problem of divining a rank order on such flimsy data.

Better to split the candidates into two broadly equal groups, by dividing them either randomly or by ‘seeding’ them: using a rank order to put odd numbers in one panel and even numbers in the other. In this case, the rank order is not so critical, as it doesn’t exclude anyone from the debates, it just splits the stronger candidates into different sides of the pool. 

A wide range of quality candidates is a good place to be. Democrats have one serious candidate, and a few others just trying to make a point or hoping she will implode. Right now, people are not paying attention. A poll of New Hampshire voters rated Jeb Bush as the most experienced candidate. That’s mostly name recognition. He was a good, two-term, governor of a very substantial state. But George Pataki served three terms in New York, Rick Perry three and a half terms in Texas, and John Kasich is in his second term in Ohio.

That Bush completed his second term in Florida is certainly an advantage over Kasich. Florida is also the bigger state (though Ohio is not exactly Delaware). But if you add in the 16 years Kasich served in Congress then things start to look different. Legislative positions are not good preparation for executive leadership, but can show that someone is familiar with federal, as well as state, issues. And legislative leadership positions – such as the six years Kasich spent chairing the Budget Committee – require skills closer to that of the executive branch than do junior legislative roles – such as just beginning your second term as junior senator from New York.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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