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How the parties took over the primary debates

Sen. Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Michael Dukakis (from L) join hands before a presidential debate sponsored by the Daily News.
Sen. Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Michael Dukakis (from L) join hands before a presidential debate sponsored by the Daily News.
Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In December 1987, six Democratic presidential candidates joined six Republican presidential candidates on the stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for a primary debate. The Democrats answered some questions from moderator Tom Brokaw, and then Republicans offered their critiques. Then the parties would switch.

This was unlike presidential primary debates that occurred before or after. Indeed, most primary debates of the day were precedent-setting. The rules we are accustomed to today in presidential primary debates are actually very recent inventions. Those rules and customs have developed over the past four decades as parties have slowly asserted their control over the process. We explore this odd history in a paper we're presenting this week at APSA, looking at how this development has affected democracy within the parties.

Prior to the McGovern-Fraser reforms of the early 1970s that gave rise to the modern system of presidential primaries, primary debates were rare (although there was one between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen in 1948, and an odd debate over the Vietnam War between Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in 1967).

Once primaries became important to winning the presidency, candidates started taking advantage of the publicity afforded by debates, but those were negotiated in an ad hoc fashion. In 1972, Hubert Humphrey challenged George McGovern to several debates for the Democratic nomination; several of those were one-on-one affairs, while others involved more candidates.

In a famous example, Reagan challenged frontrunner George H.W. Bush to a debate in New Hampshire in 1980, and sought to invite several other candidates, including Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Bush and the Nashua Telegraph, which was hosting the debate, wanted to keep it a two-person contest. The other candidates were invited to watch from the audience, which left Dole yelling complaints from the back of the room. As Dole complained, Bush "stiffed us, with the help of the paper."

By the 1990s, it was common for primary debates to include all the "major" candidates for president, although it was the hosting media organizations that usually got to determine just what made someone a major candidate. After all, there are usually quite a few minor ones out there. (Prior to the first Republican presidential debate in 2015, 120 registered Republicans had filed with the FEC to run for president. The record 17 major candidates that participated in that debate represented only 14 percent of the available candidate pool.)

As far as we can tell, the media was pressured into providing some transparency in the process for inviting candidates only starting in the 2008 cycle. And then the process was still pretty arbitrary, causing a few controversies. First, businessman John Cox was excluded from an early debate hosted by Fox News — despite, by some measures, meeting the polling criteria they had set out.

Cox sought legal action but was denied by a US district court that ruled that a primary debate was not a "public entity." In other words, thresholds didn't make his exclusion seem any less arbitrary than when he simply wasn't invited to the Reagan Library debate.

Fox also denied libertarian Ron Paul a spot on the stage when it co-hosted a debate before the New Hampshire primary. The method of exclusion was similar to what happened to Cox in 2007: The network established a polling threshold, and then appeared to select polls that would allow it to keep Rep. Paul out of the debate. The New Hampshire GOP was not amused and pulled its co-sponsorship of the event, citing a strong tradition of inclusion in the Granite State.

It's only a few instances, but these responses are interesting. Seeking court remedies for exclusion went nowhere for poor Cox. The courts have treated primaries themselves as public, but jurisprudence around political parties has otherwise treated parties as private organizations, whose expressive purpose and freedom of association are protected by the First Amendment. This logic also informed the 2007 decision.

The clash between Fox News and the New Hampshire Republican Party offers a different possibility. While news organizations seem to play a gatekeeper role in deciding who can participate, we have at least one instance of a party organization expressly defending democratic norms. It's possible the New Hampshire GOP is unique in this regard — New Hampshire has, if nothing else, some very distinct politics. But one of the goals of our larger research project is to see how party elites perceive the importance of democracy within parties, and what trade-offs they are willing to make with regard to having open, competitive, and participatory processes.

When and where debates were held, and who would moderate them, remained decisions made by the media until very recently. After the 2012 cycle, Republicans recommended some changes to the process as part of their postmortem report.

Party leaders had generally felt that the debates in that cycle were problematic. There had been too many (20 of them), some of them scheduled on the same weekend and announced at the last minute. Journalists had asked questions that made for good headlines but were of little use to Republican voters watching and trying to make decisions. And the debates largely served to beat up frontrunner Mitt Romney, to eliminate promising alternatives like Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty, and to elevate and prolong the campaign of Newt Gingrich, seen as a weak and potentially disastrous candidate.

Through the RNC's assertions, debates in the 2016 cycle took on a much more orderly and consistent format. There were only 12 party-sanctioned debates, and panels included conservative voices like Hugh Hewitt to make sure more representative questions were being asked.

The post-2012 reforms "worked," in the sense that they changed debates and made them serve more of a party purpose, although it seems pretty clear that they didn't produce the nominee that party insiders wanted.

We'll probably be sifting through the wreckage of the 2016 nomination well into the future. But one of the immediate implications of 2016 is that frontrunner Trump benefited from the fairly low thresholds that were established early on. By requiring candidates to poll about 3 percent for the main debates and about 1 for the "undercard" early debates, the unexpected frontrunner faced a crowded field of contenders for the "establishment lane." We can't know for sure, but had the thresholds been just slightly higher — say, 5 percent in September — Trump would have faced fewer opponents. And maybe one of the mainstream candidates — perhaps John Kasich, who often performed well in debates — would have made a stronger showing.

But lower thresholds allowed the early debates to be chaotic affairs, which may have worked to Trump's benefit. Excluding candidates like Rand Paul and Chris Christie from the early primetime debates might well have caused outrage for being "undemocratic." We won't ever know for sure. But the Trump example certainly opens up questions about the unintended consequences of intraparty democracy.