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The Republican Reality Show

The excessive number of presidential candidates is a feature, not a bug.
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Presidential debate showing at Alamo Drafthouse. (Photo: Katie Spence/Flickr)

Presidential debate showing at Alamo Drafthouse. (Photo: Katie Spence/Flickr)

The rather large field of Republican presidential candidates (maybe 17 of them?) is creating problems for the news networks trying to organize debates. To wit:

  • Fox News is limiting the first debate to just the 10 candidates with the best polling numbers. (Jonathan Bernstein explains some of the problems with this. Not only are most of these candidates at single-digit levels of support right now with highly unstable numbers, but it gives everyone the perverse incentive to act as insane as possible before the debate to juice their popularity.)
  • CNN has announced that there will be two waves for the debate it's hosting, one for the top-tier candidates and one for the not-so-top-tier.

It is a challenge, and the news networks seem to be saying to Republican leaders, "If you won't winnow the field, we'll have to do it for you."

But really, this doesn't have to be such a chore. Indeed, the large number of candidates can be seen as a feature, not a bug. Instead of trying to pare down the candidates to make a debate more manageable, maybe they could just change the format of the event to make it work better with large numbers of candidates.

Via Facebook, Phil Klinkner suggested that the GOP and news media borrow ideas from game shows or reality shows, perhaps making it more like American Idol, where people can call in and cast votes. That's entirely the right spirit—this process can be way more entertaining and draw in a larger audience than it currently does. But such a program would still be a lot like a primary with the masses voting, and we're not at that point yet. What we need is a way to allow party elites and journalists to maintain their roles in winnowing the field, but to do it in a more engaging, open, and perhaps fairer fashion. So here are some proposals for ways to make candidate debates work, based on models from some existing TV shows:

  • The Voice: Judges John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin are seated in rotating chairs faced away from a stage. Each presidential candidate is given two minutes to give a brief stump speech explaining their rationale for becoming president. If any of the judges like what they hear, they push a button and their chair turns around. If more than two judges push their buttons, the candidate gets to choose which one she wants to work with. The candidate then gets coached by the judge for later debates. If no judge pushes a button, the candidate is prohibited from participating in future debates.
  • Chopped: Candidates are brought out in groups of four. They are handed baskets containing four seemingly random news clippings. (e.g.: "Scientists Detect Dark Matter," "GDP Growth Is 1.7 percent in First Quarter," "Taylor Swift Releases Downloadable Series of Burps in .mp3 Format," and "Interviews With People Already in Line for New 'Star Wars' Film.") The candidates are given five minutes to assemble these clippings into a two-minute stump speech that a) articulates all four news stories, and b) somehow blames everything on either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. A panel of journalists then eliminates one person from each group, who may not participate in future debates.
  • The Real World: All the candidates are placed in a group house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for two months, with all of their interactions filmed. There will be ample opportunity for cutaway interviews with the candidates. They are given tasks to perform, such as running a food truck, applying for health insurance through an ACA exchange, or painting a medical marijuana clinic. Their supervisors at these tasks get to evaluate their performances and eliminate the weakest candidates, who are barred from future events.

These contests would serve several valuable functions at once. First, their atypical style would draw in an audience, which would get to observe different candidates thinking on their feet, interacting with others, and otherwise behaving in unscripted moments. Second, they would make the winnowing of candidates a more visible and entertaining process than the usual invisible primary, although likely with similar outcomes. Third, they would emphasize that, while the public is welcome to join in the action and cheer on a favorite, they are not the ones who actually get to eliminate candidates. Party leaders and journalists are the ones who do the actual winnowing at this stage.

And for those who think this would belittle the office of the presidency, please keep in mind that our current presidential selection system evaluates candidates based on how well they eat corn dogs, flip pancakes, and bowl. Would this be much worse?

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.