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Despite all the fuss, GOP candidates' debate demands are pretty minor

Candidates at the controversial CNBC debate.
Candidates at the controversial CNBC debate.
David A. Grogan/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Since last week's controversial CNBC presidential debate, Republican candidates' discontent with this year's debate system as a whole has been mounting. And on Sunday, representatives for most of those candidates got together in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss what they should do in response.

But they couldn't agree on much.

As of Monday morning, the upshot of multiple reports on the meeting — from the Washington Post, the New York TimesPolitico, and CNN — is that the candidates will unite to demand a series of minor changes. (Monday afternoon update: And it turns out Donald Trump won't agree even to those and will instead negotiate with the networks himself, according to a new report by the Washington Post's Robert Costa and David Weigel.)

According to a blustery draft letter from the campaigns, posted by Robert Costa on Twitter (here are parts onetwo, and three), which isn't yet finalized (and which Trump won't agree to), the candidates are currently planning to demand:

  • Opening and closing statements for each candidate that last at least 30 seconds
  • Equal time, similarly substantive, and fair questions for each candidate
  • No rapid-fire "lightening rounds" (sic) in which all the candidates are limited to a few words in answering questions
  • More details further in advance on what the rules, subject, production, and format will be
  • Veto power for candidates over graphic and bio information that will be displayed onscreen about them

For the most part, these seem to be really reasonable and minor demands — except for the last one about approval of graphics, which may demand the networks surrender too much control over their editorial process. This demand was apparently made because CNBC displayed this graphic onscreen while Jeb Bush was speaking last week:

Jeb CNBC graphic

Apart from the graphic demand, though, these seem to be the lowest common denominator changes that the various campaigns can agree on — not a dramatic upheaval of the process as a whole.

The negotiating dynamic: The candidates have some leverage, because the debates are a big moneymaker for the networks

Until this point, it's been the Republican National Committee that has been responsible for working with the various media outlets hosting debates on rules. The candidates themselves had no formal role, and relied on the RNC to advocate for their interests.

But as the campaigns have become more established — and as it's become clearer and clearer that the debates are major cash cows for the networks that host them, allowing them to sell ads at hugely elevated prices — the candidates have started to want more of a say.

This played out a bit before the CNBC debate, when Donald Trump and Ben Carson threatened to boycott the event if the network didn't limit the total event to two hours and allow some form of opening and closing statements for each candidate. CNBC eventually agreed to both demands — making it clear that the candidates now had leverage over the networks.

But many conservatives ended up viewing the CNBC debate as a debacle anyway, due to "what they saw as CNBC moderators' biased and disrespectful treatment" of the candidates, as Timothy Lee explained here.

So the candidates are capitalizing on this sense of outrage and on the networks' hunger to sell ads for future debates, and trying to restructure future debates in ways that will help them more.

For instance, the networks have been reluctant to allow opening and closing statements, since candidates generally give rote recitations of their campaign talking points that are quite undramatic. But the candidates themselves view this as a crucial opportunity to deliver their unfiltered message to the public.

Yet the candidates couldn't agree on anything more serious

Of course, the problem with the candidates uniting in negotiations is that they are, in the end, competing against each other.

So it was impossible to find agreement on any larger-scale overhauls of the process, because the various candidates have different interests that are at odds. This helps explain why Trump is now rejecting the candidates' attempt to unite, and going his own way instead. For instance:

  • Donald Trump has long wanted the number of candidates allowed onstage to be reduced. But contenders polling worse, like Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham, want more people in primetime.
  • Ben Carson's team wanted fewer televised debates overall, according to CNN's Dylan Byers. But candidates like Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and even Chris Christie would have no interest in that, since some of their campaigns' best moments have been in debates.
  • Jeb Bush's team wanted the February 2016 NBC/Telemundo debate, which was suspended by the RNC last week due to the CNBC controversy, to be reinstated. But a representative for Trump, who has feuded with the network, said Trump would boycott if it was, according to the Washington Post's David Weigel and Robert Costa.

So despite all the bluster, for the most part future debates will likely look pretty much the same as the ones we've already seen. Bigger changes would probably hurt some candidates more than others — so the candidates won't unite to demand them at all.

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