With so many Republican debates during the 2012 presidential campaign, it’s hardly surprising, in retrospect, that exhausted or ill-prepared candidates made so many gaffes on or off the stage.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry famously said “oops” after forgetting one of the three federal departments he’d vowed to eliminate if he won the White House. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania lost his momentum after saying President Obama was a “snob” for wanting all young people to attend college, while former Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota inexplicably confused Hollywood great John Wayne with serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Yet with more than two dozen GOP debates held during the 2012 campaign season, candidates who stumbled still had a chance to redeem themselves. (All told, there were 27 GOP debates and forums in 2012, Election Central calculated, including two “Lincoln-Douglas” style debates in which Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, went up against businessman Herman Cain in one and against Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, in the other.)
After being hammered by Gingrich in a South Carolina debate and losing the primary, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney bounced back in Florida in late January. That was after delivering two impressive back-to-back performances that not only caught Gingrich flatfooted, but showed just how articulate and commanding Romney could be when the chips were down.
Still, it’s safe to say that most candidates, party leaders and members of the media who took part in or covered that primary campaign season experienced debate fatigue and had a sense that too many televised debates opened the door to too many weak or uninspired performances.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told The Washington Post that the 2012 debates embarrassed the party. Moreover, he and other GOP leaders have complained that liberal news organizations, which frequently sponsored and controlled the debate formats, had far too much influence in shaping voter perceptions of the candidates.
After many months of intra-party sniping during the debates, the party ended up with its presidential nominee. Still, during the debate season, members of his own party as well as many Democrats took swipes at Romney, calling him an elitist multi-millionaire businessman out of touch with average Americans – until the party mostly coalesced behind him.
All of this helps explain why the RNC said last week that it’s substantially truncating the upcoming debates in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Rather than allowing a repeat of the chaos of 2012, the RNC has put the number of officially sanctioned debates at 10 or so, beginning in August 2015 and running through early 2016.
A few others likely will be added.
“By constructing and instituting a sound debate process, it will allow candidates to bring their ideas and vision to Americans in a timely and efficient way,” Priebus said in announcing the schedule during his party’s winter meeting in San Diego. “This schedule ensures we will have a robust discussion among our candidates while also allowing the candidates to focus their time engaging with Republican voters.”
In short, Priebus wants far fewer opportunities for “oops” moments.
Showing they mean business, party leaders declared that any candidate who participates in a debate that isn’t sanctioned by the RNC will not be permitted to take part in any more debates.
Media organizations and cash-strapped candidates eager to get additional attention might challenge the GOP by moving ahead with other unofficial debates, of course. But with the stakes high as the GOP hunts for a powerful standard-bearer to take on the likely candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton, party leaders are likely to prevail in enforcing the new policies.
The new approach was also designed to spread out the debates geographically so that high-profile primary and caucus states no longer can hog the limelight. In the past campaign, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida each hosted four debates, while Iowa hosted three.
Steve Duprey, chair of the RNC debate committee, acknowledged there had been resistance from party leaders in those early primary states that enjoy outsized influence in the presidential campaign. Duprey, by the way, is from New Hampshire and has long enjoyed his state’s exalted status in national politics.
But he said the change is worthwhile to improve the overall process. New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina aren’t thrilled about it, Duprey told Politico, but they’ll work with it.
Here are the nine GOP debates tentatively scheduled, with a few others to come:
- Fox News in Ohio in August 2015
- CNN in California in September 2015
- CNBC in California in October 2015
- Fox Business in Wisconsin in November 2015
- CNN in Nevada in December 2015
- Fox News in Iowa January 2016
- ABC News in New Hampshire February 2016
- CBS News in South Carolina in February 2016
- NBC/Telemundo in Florida in in February 2016
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