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The Republican debate problem, explained

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In the 2016 cycle, the Republican Party has had a remarkable surplus of presidential candidates, making it difficult for Republican elites to unite behind an alternative to amateurs Ben Carson and this guy. One effect of the number of candidates has been to distort Republican debates, with 10 or 11 candidates competing for scraps of time in the main event and "happy hour" debates for the rest of the candidates.

I have previously surveyed possible reasons for the large number of candidates, but I have a guess as to why so many candidates have run: debates. Politicians and the Republican Party learned the lessons of the 2012 cycle too well, resulting in a surplus of candidates for a limited number of debates.

A look back at the 2012 Republican primary

As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck nicely describe in The Gamble, the 2012 Republican primary consisted of Mitt Romney outlasting a series of alternative candidates who caught the attention of anti-Romney voters in Republican debates, shot up in the polls, and then fell to earth when their flaws were exposed by heightened scrutiny.

2012 GOP Primary polling

Romney polled a steady 20 to 30 percent until March 2012. (RealClearPolitics poll average)

The lesson for a potential presidential candidate was clear: No matter what your limitations are, you are just a couple of strong debate performances away from being the frontrunner. However, political parties learned the same lesson in reverse: Campaign debates provide an all-too-democratic means for subpar candidates to rise to the top without being vetted.

2016: The Republicans' tragedy of the commons

The Republican National Committee responded to the instability of 2012 by limiting the number of debates from 20 in 2012 to nine in 2016. Meanwhile, potential candidates reacted by being more likely to run for president — there have been 17 "major" candidates who have appeared in RNC-sanctioned debates.

The result: The supply of debate time is severely decreased while the total demand for debate time (i.e., the number of candidates) goes up. In 2011, the debates held by November 6 had an average of seven candidates each, while this year's debates have had 17, 15, and 14 candidates. There is a general term for an oversupply of competitors for a scarce and shared good: a tragedy of the commons, which is based on a classic metaphor of an excess of sheep grazing on a village green.

At present, the networks selected for the sanctioned debates are forced into the role of allocating a scarce resource — debate time — among candidates. This leaves them in the role of deciding whom to invite to the main event versus the undercard, and whom to exclude entirely; how long the debates should last; and how to allocate time across candidates.

Obviously, this has led to sharp competition among candidates to get into the top tier, attempts to score points in short sound bites, and complaints about the allocation of time. This culminated in a revolt among GOP candidates nominally aimed at the CNBC moderators but grounded in the larger problem of scarcity that these candidates face.

The Republicans embrace socialism

Often, when faced with an intractable economic problem, a Republican candidate asks himself, "WWRD?" So, what would Ronald Reagan do in this situation? Faced with a set of actors complaining that private companies are making them work long hours, allocating compensation inequitably, and treating them as adversaries, Reagan would:

  1. Remind them that private businesses are virtuous and efficient
  2. Thank them for their past service, and
  3. Fire them

The RNC, on the other hand, huddled with the candidates and then tried to get the hosting networks to:

  1. Allow 30-second opening and closing statements
  2. Allocate time/questions equally across candidates
  3. Refrain from questions that efficiently compare candidates on the same question (e.g., yes/no questions), "raise your hand if..." questions, or "lightning round" questions

There's a word for this: socialism. The RNC is forcing private businesses job creators to pay equal attention to candidates despite overwhelming evidence that most of them are more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the GOP nomination.

One assumes the conservative socialist candidates of the Republican party will claim that equality of results is essential in this case because presidential elections are important, that we can't let market forces influence the selection of a presidential candidate. Presumably, anyone making this argument will also call for re-regulating the campaign finance system to ensure the equal value of every citizen; otherwise their commitment to collective allocation of scarce goods will appear self-serving.

Fixing the debate problem in 2020

All kidding aside, how could this system be improved? Assuming it is too late for major changes in the 2016 cycle, let's focus on fixing the process for both parties in 2020. Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Limit the number of debate participants. Eleven on a stage is too many. Each party should pick an optimal number and deny participation to weak candidates.
  2. Access to debates should not be based on public opinion polls. Early public polls are heavily influenced by name recognition, not candidate quality. And since a 1,000-person poll sample will still have a margin of error of +/- 3 percent, polls are not very good at distinguishing between multiple candidates polling between 0 and 3 percent. (See also here and here).
  3. Instead, parties should privately poll their party elites — members of Congress, governors, and members of the RNC and DNC. This would increase the role of formal party elites in the nomination process, making it more difficult for amateur candidates to get the nomination and diluting the influence of megadonors. It would also steer the media conversation away from the candidates who are highest in the polls and toward the candidates who have the most elite support.