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The party and the outsider candidates are using the debates for different things

The GOP wants to use the debates to find vulnerable candidates. Some of the candidates want to use them to reach the voters directly.

Donald Trump, right, needs to be at the center of attention in the debates, while the party wants to see how he stacks up to Marco Rubio, left, and others who faced off last week on CNBC.
Donald Trump, right, needs to be at the center of attention in the debates, while the party wants to see how he stacks up to Marco Rubio, left, and others who faced off last week on CNBC.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You can never go wrong in conservative politics by attacking the media. The Republican candidates for their party's presidential nomination are doing just that. After CNBC asked questions that some candidates didn't like at the October 27 debate, some of the candidates complained, and some even drafted demands for future debates.

Republicans are being criticized for being too thin-skinned, but I think that misses two important points. First, just on general principle, the party should be able to design its candidate selection however it wants. That includes barring certain kinds of questions or choosing only friendly partners. It's their process.

We often forget that the nomination period is when the parties choose their nominees. It's not just about the candidates fighting to get that nomination. A series of reforms and state laws at the beginning of the 1970s shifted the process toward state primaries and caucuses, which make it easier for candidates to appeal directly to voters. But the process is still about parties making choices, as I and co-authors argued in our book The Party Decides.

Second, and more importantly, the argument over that process has more to do with what the candidates think their strengths are than with any general principle. Debate rules are typically negotiated with the party organization. Some of the candidates are trying to edge out the party, because what they want is not what the party wants.

If you are trying to figure out which candidate might do well in the general election, or you are thinking about the need to compromise with the other side, then it matters how the candidates answer sometimes hostile questions. The party wants to find out which candidates are vulnerable to the "oops" moment that so hurt Rick Perry four years ago. That won't happen without tough questions.

But if you are just trying to win for yourself, then hostile questions can be a problem.

In short, the party would like a rigorous debate. Some of the candidates would not. All of the candidates have reasons to be unhappy when they think the process is hurting them, but you can tell which candidates are thinking like a party, and which are not, by the kinds of demands that they make.

In many ways, the debates are more important for the candidates with fewer ties to the party, because they need a way to reach voters. I don't want to accuse anyone of only caring about the entertainment value of the debates, but the entertainment value is crucial to candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and even to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. At this stage, few people who are not already very interested in politics are watching the debates. The outsider candidates need higher ratings, because this is their best way to get attention. And without attention, those candidates suffer.

But party activists are watching the debates whether they are entertaining or not. Debates are a place to test the candidates, and it doesn't matter so much if the less engaged tune in yet. Party leaders hope to decide whom to back in the primaries, and then the less engaged voters will get involved after the field has narrowed.

So the debate over the debates is between two perspectives. Are the debates a tool for parties to choose their nominees? Or are they tools for candidates to reach voters? Those are not the same thing.