RNC Tries To Limit The Number Of Presidential Debates

The Republican National Committee is trying to bring some sanity to the Presidential debate process, but there's no guarantee it can succeed.


Of all the things that marked the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, the number of multi-candidate debates that took place from May through December 2011, before a single vote had been cast were perhaps the most distinctive. During this period, there were some 21 separate debates with all or most of the candidates attending. Given that we are talking about a time when there were as many as nine candidates on the stage at any given time, meaning that individual candidates were often limited to two minutes or less to answer a question, there was a decided lack of substance to any of these debates, as well as several occasions where candidates who were further back in the polls complained that they were being ignored by moderators. And, of course, there was enough cable television inanity to go around, such as when CNN’s John King asked the candidates to choose between Coke and Pepsi, or what kind of pizza they liked the best. By the time the process was over, most reporters, and some of the candidates, were openly mocking the number of debates, and a format that proved to be more about entertainment value and trying to catch candidates in gaffes than anything useful. In the wake of the GOP’s 2012 loss, one of he first reforms that some proposed to was a limit to the number of debates going forward, and that’s exactly what the Republican National Committee is proposing for 2016:

The Republican National Committee announced Friday that it will sanction at least nine presidential primary debates, starting this August in Ohio and continuing through March 2016, with the potential to add three more.

The schedule, obtained first by POLITICO, was rolled out at the RNC’s winter meeting here.

A committee within the RNC and top staffers have been working for nearly a year on an effort to cut the number of debates roughly in half from the 20 held during the 2012 cycle. There have been high-level conversations between party leaders and executives at the nation’s broadcast and cable channels.

To give their push to control the debate process teeth, the party announced Friday that any candidate who participates in a debate that isn’t sanctioned by the RNC will not be allowed to participate in any mo,,re sanctioned debates. A question clouding the effort has been whether media organizations and cash-strapped candidates desperate for free airtime would go forward with unofficial debates, undercutting the whole process. But the stiffness of the penalty will probably deter such behavior.

One of the most interesting nuggets of the schedule is that no state gets more than one sanctioned debate. Last time, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida each hosted four debates. Iowa hosted three.

Steve Duprey, who chairs the RNC debate committee — and also happens to be New Hampshire’s representative to the committee — acknowledged pushback from leaders of the early states. But he said it’s worthwhile to improve the overall process.

“New Hampshire is not real thrilled, Iowa isn’t real thrilled, South Carolina isn’t real thrilled,” Duprey said. “But they’ll accept it.”

In any case, here’s the list of “sanctioned” debates:

1. Fox News, August 2015, Ohio

2. CNN, September 2015, California, at the Ronald Reagan presidential library

3. CNBC, October 2015, Colorado

4. Fox Business, November 2015, Wisconsin

5. CNN, December 2015, Nevada

6. Fox News, January 2016, Iowa

7. ABC News, February 2016, New Hampshire

8. CBS News, February 2016, South Carolina

9. NBC/Telemundo, February 2016, Florida

Three more are pending:

10. Fox News, March 2016, location TBD

11. CNN, March 2016, location TBD

12. Conservative Media Debate, date TBD, locations TBD

On the surface, I suppose, this seems like a reasonable answer to the issue of exactly how many debates to have during a period when the vast majority of Americans aren’t even paying much attention to the Presidential election to begin with. Last time around, the debates started in May and by September we were at the point where there were as many as three or four a month for reasons that nobody could really quite understand. As noted above, the most that many of these debates did was give candidates the opportunity to commit gaffes that, in all honesty, were of only passing relevance when it comes to the question of what kind of President they might be, or whether they even belong on the stage to begin with. More importantly, the other major complaint about the debates during the 2012 debate cycle wasn’t just that there were too many debates but that the vast majority of them occurred long before any of the primaries were scheduled. Since this is when most voters are actually starting to pay attention to the election, one would have thought that there would have been debates when voters were actually voting. Instead, thanks in no small part that there had already been some two dozen debates over the past year, the media didn’t seem all too interested in scheduling new debates, and the public seemed to be sick enough of the process to not really notice the lack of debates among the candidates at a point in time when they might have actually been useful. In that sense, this calender is better in that it schedules most of the debates during the December through  March time period when voters are actually likely to be paying attention to the process.

All that being said, I have to wonder how well the RNC will be able to do at actually controlling the number of debates. There will undoubtedly be come unsanctioned debates scheduled by media outlets and, candidates being candidates, there will be campaigns willing to participate in them if only for the free publicity that results from these appearances. When that happens, one has to wonder if the party will really have the fortitude to enforce its ruling that participating in unsanctioned debates means being barred from future sanctioned debates. In such a situation, the party is likely to be the one that looks bad if it tries to keep certain candidates out of debates because they chose to make themselves more available to the public and the media than other candidate. If there ends up being no sanction for participating in unsanctioned debates, of course, than the entire process crumbles and we’re back to the 2012 free for all. So, while I get the sentiment behind the desire to limit the number of debates, and limit them to a time when the public is actually paying attention, I’m skeptical about whether or not it can actually work in the real world of politics where every candidate is going to be looking for as much free media time as they can get.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. JohnMcC says:

    Well, just to begin the discussion where it belongs let’s recall that this is TV we’re talking and for a period of time back in ’12, the ‘debates’ were the best show there. And SOMEBODY profited from each of them. Those people are hoping to repeat their success. I bet that the local media and state party apparatchiks in lots of fun places like Myrtle Beach can’t wait to go free-lance again.

    If the RNC freezes out sufficiently large numbers of that kind of political participant they might be sending a significant crack through the unity of the Repub party.

    First we’ll see whether Reince Priebus has the guts to try, then whether the local T-Party folk will resist. And we’ll know when the ‘bootleg’ debate winner becomes a primary winner.

  2. Crusty Dem says:

    The main problem for the RNC is that you have actual presidential candidates on stage with the gritting hucksters who are just trying to sell their latest book or lock in the bucks at Fox. Unfortunately, they have a hell of a time because the hucksters are better at the job than the “real” candidates. So you end up with Cain or Gingrich or Huckabee leading in the polls until they flame out. And now we’re entering some bizarre stage where I can’t even tell who is actually trying to be president vs who wants attention. So the RNC will try to limit the mockery by holding fewer debates, running the risk of a joke candidate getting the nomination.

    Great time to be a Republican!!

  3. PJ says:

    The RNC is trying to influence the next primary election and take the decision away from the real people.

    Yet again they refuse to sanction Presidential debates for Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and WND.

    Real conservatives should stay at home and hold their breaths until they turn blue.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    How do you bring sanity to the party dedicated to the insane?
    Austerity in the face of recession.
    Cutting taxes raises enough revenue to pay for the lost revenue.
    Deporting 11 million people is viable.
    100% of the qualified scientist on a single subject have conspired to con the worlds population and only Republicans can see it.
    Dinosaurs walked with man.
    A single cell is a person.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    I forgot democracy, in the Middle East, at gunpoint.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @PJ: ah yes, the loudest of the birther, conspiracy, and sued-for-libel sites.

    Ever thought that the RNC is hesitant about appearing on a show that has ads for preppers and people selling books claiming Obama is a Lizard Person from Rigel?

  7. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares? Since the Republicans have no chance of winning in 2016, there is no point in thinking about, let alone writing about the Republican nominating process. The only question that remains in for the presidential election in 2016 is whether anyone in the Democratic Party is going to challenge Hillary Clinton and if so, do any of those candidates have a chance of winning.

    One of the interesting aspects of the blue wall is that since it has probably already reached 270 electoral votes, the general election is pointless. The Democrats could nominate a child abusing drug user and that candidate would still win due to the massive number of automatic Democratic Party voters in a general election.

    I guess it is more important that the news media complex to focus on the irrelevant Republican side show rather than focusing on the real dominant political party in the U.S.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    Best description yet I’ve run across for Mitt Romney:

    “obvious windsock”

  9. PJ says:

    @grumpy realist:

    ah yes, the loudest of the birther, conspiracy, and sued-for-libel sites.

    They are being hounded (dog whistle! (also a dog whistle! (recursive dog whistle!))) by the Obama administration for exposing the truth. Don’t buy into the lies from left wing nuts! The right is right and the left is what’s left!

  10. Gustopher says:

    12 debates into the process last time — was that Cain or Santorum’s time in the spotlight?

    I get what they are trying to do (limit debates during the preprimary season when only the craziest wing of the crazy primary voters are paying attention, and hope that the primary voters are more mature) but it stands a really good chance of backfiring.

    In 2012, Republican voters desperately didn’t want the establishment candidate, and weren’t willing to settle for him until they had examined every other candidate in detail. Speeding up that decision might make them fail to notice that the crazy du jour literally froths at the mouth until enough primaries have gone by to really damage the establishment candidate. And if it is Romney again, he doesn’t need more loser-stink.

  11. superdestroyer says:


    How cares what the Republicans notice or do not notice? There is no way that a Republican can win so the Republican primary seasons is nothing more than programming for the cable news services, wonks, pudnits, and other close observers of politics. The main function of the Republican primary season is to give everyone a reason to ignore policy and governance issues for another year. It also gives the Democrats a year to blame everyone wrong on the Repubicans when the Democratic Party is the dominant party in the U.S. and the Republicans are an afterthought.

  12. Pinky says:

    I’d like to see each candidate put out an hour-long YouTube video. Twenty minutes foreign policy, twenty minutes economic policy, twenty minutes social policy. No interruptions, no gotcha questions, no format other than whatever each candidate chooses. I wouldn’t want anything else. I’d love to see that replace the nonsense before the primaries, but even if it didn’t, it could at least supplement it with an opportunity for each candidate to lay out his agenda.

  13. Paul Hooson says:

    In the case of Rick Perry, not debating at all seems wise….And Mitt Romney needs to learn that doing “brownface” when you address Hispanic TV isn’t wise as well….

  14. Tyrell says:

    These debates have become nothing less than a show: scripted, choreographed, orchestrated, and controlled. One thing you will not get is a candidate addressing the real issues that are affecting the country. You will not hear someone get on there and be straight with the people about what really is going on. It will never happen, it will never be allowed.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:


    I wouldn’t want anything else.

    So you wouldn’t want anybody else questioning their assumptions? You would rely solely on your own knowledge of the universe to question what this person prescribes? Wow… must be good to be Dog.

  16. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @PJ: From your lips to God’s ear (on conservatives holding their breath until they turn blue).

    @Pinky: That would be nice, but it is impractical. As Doug notes:

    Given that we are talking about a time when there were as many as nine candidates on the stage at any given time, meaning that individual candidates were often limited to two minutes or less to answer a question, there was a decided lack of substance to any of these debates,

    That would seem to endorse your proposal as a potential solution. Unfortunately, we’re talking about Republicans here. Two minutes, an hour, day, a book, a series of books, it doesn’t matter–if you have no ideas or positions (and I see no evidence of any whatsoever) you can’t add substance to the debate.

  17. anjin-san says:


    I’d like to see each candidate put out an hour-long YouTube video.

    Not having to think on their feet with people watching would have distinct advantages for the GOP candidates.

    No interruptions, no gotcha questions,

    Why should we expect someone who wants to be the most powerful person in the world to be able to handle an interruption or a gotcha question? The bar is too damn high!

  18. Guarneri says:

    Meanwhile, waking up from their daily opium den nap, the OTB commenting section learned of the newly chosen 2016 Democratic Party Presidential debate opening theme music:


  19. HarvardLaw92 says:


    “Bitter – table for one, please …”

  20. Pinky says:

    I would obviously want to research what the candidates said. I imagine that there would be countless articles in response. But do I need to know if a candidate is good at replying to gotcha questions? Not really. A president probably doesn’t have to think on his feet that often, anyway. We’re not electing a quarterback. The closer football analogy would be a team’s general manager. He assembles the players and helps set the tone.

  21. Pinky says:

    @Guarneri: I clicked on it and I heard some Little Feat, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: What has not happened in a long time has been the inclusion of the third party and independent candidates. And I think we all know why that has happened !

  23. HarvardLaw92 says:


    You mean other than that Libertarian pretending to be a Republican in 2012?

  24. sam says:


    These debates have become nothing less than a show: scripted, choreographed, orchestrated, and controlled

    That’s exactly what the GOP debates were not. Which made them the clown shows they were. Which is exactly what Pribus is terrrified they will be again. Hence the attempt to throttle down.