Fox’s August GOP Debate is the First Primary of the Season

GOP Debate Field for New Hampshire in 2011 (CC: Donkey Hotey)

GOP Debate Field for New Hampshire in 2011 (CC: Donkey Hotey)

The Republican presidential field has 14 candidates currently. It will likely grow to 20 candidates. Perhaps even more will join in. Before this is over, there may be as many candidates as there were original Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors. The difference being that the ice cream flavors at least provide enjoyment as comfort foods. The only enjoyment coming from this growing list of presidential hopefuls is the entertainment value.

Debates are planned this year between candidates. Fox News will host the first one in August, followed by another by CNN in September. Debates have become a regular prop in presidential politics. I say prop because they often lack substance and have little to do with a true debate. However, they do offer an opportunity to see all the candidates onstage so that the sane can separate themselves from the extreme. Unlike most campaign events, debates aren’t completely staged. That tiny bit of spontaneity that appears gives a better glimpse of the real person behind the candidacy than the image that political consultants have carefully crafted.

The problem that debate organizers never imagined is that there is not a good way to cram a couple of dozen candidates onto a stage and give them more than a minute to speak. With a group this size, asking each candidate to give a one-minute opening and closing comment nearly blows an entire hour. A debate like this has all the excitement of three-hour college economics class, without the substance.

Fox’s solution is to only invite the top ten candidates, according to the most recent polls prior to the debate. CNN will take the top ten for the first debate, then the next ten for another debate. That means the second debate will be filled with candidates polling 1% or less. Undoubtedly, there are some good candidates there, but who will watch what will be the GOP equivalent of a third-party debate?

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is a candidate in 2016, just as he was in 2012. Although polling just enough to break into the top ten, Santorum has loudly criticized Fox in particular.

“If you’re a United States senator, if you’re a governor, if you’re a woman who ran a Fortune 500 company, and you’re running a legitimate campaign for president, then you should have a right to be on stage with everybody else,” Santorum said. “So the idea that we’re going to arbitrarily — and it’s arbitrary, someone at 1.15 is in, someone at 1.14 is out — that to me is not a rational way.”

In Santorum’s criticism, he refers to his candidacy in 2012 when he was only polling 4% nationally in January of that year, but won the Iowa caucuses. He also referred to Rudy Giuliani in 2008 who was near the top of the polls, but collapsed early.

Few Americans are engaged in Presidential politics by August of the preceding election year when the first Fox debates are scheduled. A candidate still acquiring national name recognition faces the prospect of being shut out before anyone can learn his or her’s views. The truth of modern politics is that if a candidate can’t make it into the top tier of either of those two debates, then the candidacy is DOA. Essentially, the first primary of the season is going to be the Fox debate. This means that Fox is taking it on itself to narrow the field and choices for American voters. Knowing the quality and content of Fox news, that is not a comfortable prospect.

American politics is filled with dark horses who rose to the presidency. The first dark horse President was James Polk, who went to the convention supporting someone else and came out the nominee. Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and Warren Harding were also dark horses. More importantly, Jimmy Carter was a dark horse candidate in the 1976 election who was polling just 1% in 1975. Carter placed twelfth at that time. According to Fox and CNN standards, he wouldn’t have been in the top tier debate.

In a system where the people are supposed to select their representatives, the major media have usurped that right by selecting who the American people will have a right to choose. This isn’t just wrong. It is dangerous.

It is correct that all the candidates on one stage at one time would be unwieldy. CNN has the right idea to split the group into two, but wrong to make one a primary group and the other a secondary. The candidates should be placed into these two groups randomly, so that there is not a bias against some who are still establishing their candidacies or are not high profile candidates.

High profile candidates are determined by huge campaign war chests, holding high office in large states or being attached to a major issue in some way. In other words, the system designed by Fox and CNN will give a big edge to the status quo. Candidates with a fresh outlook and new ideas are going to be cast aside for the big names. If you believe the status quo is peachy, then this is the system for you. If you believe something is amiss in American politics, then here is a reason why.

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