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Minor candidates and the process

Submitted by Simon on Tue, 08/30/2011 - 10:08pm

In another place, an objection is raised to the exclusion of fringe-of-the-fringe candidate Fred Karger from the GOP debates. The question isn't why he's out, in my view, but why others are in.

I've said this several times over the last few years, but I think it's important enough to say it again. In 2007, I argued that the 2008 primary should be wide open; we should have a nice robust field with all major sections of the party represented. I was wrong, and foolish; I have recanted. (See, e.g., tthis.) What I failed to take into account is that there are significant downsides to expanding the field, particularly in regard to debates. It should be obvious that since debates have limited time, the more candidates there are, the less time each will have to speak. And that's a problem, as I shall explain.

Some people say that if you don't allow minor candidates into the debates, how will they get a chance to shine? I answer that the argument sounds rather like people who post their band on Wikipedia and fight the inevitable deletion for want of notability on the grounds that the band will become notable through the exposure gained by their wikipedia entry. It's much the same here: The argument mistakes the purpose of a primary. If you haven't shone brightly enough to be a serious candidate before the primary, you have no place in it. The purpose of a primary isn't to have a conversation about the direction of the party, or to make people feel included, and so on. It isn't to let hidden gems shine, as I've just said. The process' purpose is simple and specific: To pick the party's nominee. Nothing more.

So that's the standard against which any given component of the process must be judged: That which makes the process more efficient is good and that which makes it less efficient is maladaptive. Sucking resources away from—and reducing the practical scrutiny on—the leading candidates, which is the net effect of including minor candidates. Including candidates who have zero chance of winning the nomination in debates reduces the time for meaningful answers by the candidates who do; it is of no relevance what Ron Paul thinks about bombing Iran, but it is of immense importance what Mitt Romney and Rick Perry think about it, since one of them may be the next President, and it is not a worthwhile tradeoff to give Paul a minute on the spotlight at the expense of losing a minute in which Perry can be pressed. If you want a soapbox, get a youtube account.

That's why no-hopers like Gary Johnson, Thad McCotter, and Andy Martin aren't allowed in and why no-hopers like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain shouldn't be allowed in.The same held true in 2008: There was simply no reason for the Democratic parimary to be clogged up with people like Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, or Mike Gravel. I do not say, of course, that but for their presence the Dems might have nominated Hillary (as a large number of Democrats from the party's left and right alike now seem to acknowledge they should have), but I do think that reduced scrutiny of the leading candidates was a problem, and extra candidates didn't help.

The threshold ought to be something realistic—I hate to put a number on it, but 15% sounds like a good place to open the bidding.

Three things:

First, I appreciate your consistency on this. Second, while I understand the thrust of your main argument, it has problems. First off, things can still change. Although the top tier is pretty much set, Bachmann was on top two weeks ago--so do we (or in the case of this current primary, the GOP) set a cut-off date, that after this date no more no-hopers? I think there comes a point in which the no-hopers need to be cast off, but these things do take care of themselves, don't they? If the major candidates are being in any way hindered by minor candidates and no-hopers, then that's a reflection of the weakness of the major candidates, right?

Third, do you have any numbers on this:

I do not say, of course, that but for their presence the Dems might have nominated Hillary (as a large number of Democrats from the party's left and right alike now seem to acknowledge they should have)

My quibble is with the "large number."

Let me say again the I do appreciate your consistent position on the no-hopers and long shots--that was the main thrust of this post.

P.S. Fred who? Andy who? Never heard of them. I thought Buddy Roemer was a no-hoper--at least he shows up on polls.

The debates should be a

The debates should be a longer format, anyway. The media shouldn't try to make them "entertaining", they should make them for people serious about issues. Maybe at least three hours. It could be put up on YouTube, and news networks could pick out clips and soundbites, for people who care about soundbites. But the debates shouldn't be formatted for soundbites, like they are even in two candidate debates.

Second, its not really about gaining notability. One name you didn't include in your "minor candidates" is Newt Gingrich, who has plenty of notability but isn't doing well in the polls respective to some other candidates. One could argue that this has nothing to do with his ability to sell himself; but instead, the wide field dividing the votes, divvying up the votes for anyone below the second or third candidate, plus the fact that many people have already decided to split their lots between two candidates that they've determined have the best chance of winning the nomination. One could imagine the "top tier" faltering, then people looking to him as a backup. The test of this would be to do a poll with three candidates; Romney, Perry, and Gingrich. Would he get above 15%? Maybe, maybe not. It hasn't been done ; and it would be too complicated to do this for every different combination of candidates. Use Bachmann as an example also, like Rafique suggested, if you don't think Gingrich wouldn't have a chancel. The fact is, choosing who goes in the debates is already picking the winners and losers, and either requires arbitrary standards or subjective standards.

If its a subjective standard, it should be very generous, just out of a democratic spirit. Instead of using time constraints as an excuse to restrict the democratic process, make the debates longer ; and do run-off debates.

Yeah, I agree with that--after all, a lot of the concerns about

too many candidates will take care of themselves, in the end. Three hours is a bit long, but I agree that the debates should in fact be geared towards gaining information, and having real arguments--that is to say, they should be actual debates.

Three hours is long, but I

Three hours is long, but I think if you were attending a forum, conference, or convention, you'd expect to sit around more than three hours, because that's what you're going to the event for. Anything shorter would be a waste of time. And remember, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about 3 hrs each. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the next 90 minutes, and then there was a 30 minute rejoinder.

Its a hard format for cable TV -- which thrives on ratings --- but it could be aired on C-SPAN, and on YouTube people could watch at their leisure

True, that's a good point.

True, that's a good point.



The biggest problem with the

The biggest problem with the early debates is that, unless you are a fringe candidate, they really don't help. Can anyone really give an example where the early debates have anything positive come out of them? I personally think that there shouldn't be any debates until a year before the general election. In other words, no debates prior to November. I won't watch a debate until January, myself. By then all of the interesting/important points that happened in all of the previous debates can be distilled into a five or ten minute clip.

I will have the most respect for a candidate that is willing to come out and say have a full real debate where all the moderator does is keep the debaters in line and never asks a question. Let the candidates go after each other. There is probably only one or two candidates currently running who could come out of that not looking like an idiot though. Hence, it will never happen.

suspect premise

It's a suspect premise that the debates even matter against the backdrop of 21st century communication. I can't bear to watch most of em, they're canned, repetitive, and often lacking in insight or candor. I expect debates to be replaced or at least supplanted by some sort of modern aggregator that better creates individual meaning/

Also, narrowing the field well before the primaries even draw near is bound to privilege order over vitality.

But even if the primary's purpose is to choose a nominee, that does't mean the purpose of the debate must be as well. Depends on the sponsor. A very good argument could be made that one important purpose of a debate sponsored by say the League of Women Voters (or take your pick) is to help voters better form their own views on various issues. So what matters is not just Ron Paul's viability, but his insight, if he has any to offer.

If the GOP or the democrats wants to narrow the field as a way as fostering their party's prospects, that's fine with me. If they foot the bill. But if the real story pod a debate is "free PR" (and i think it is), then they should shut up and take what's given. While planning how to best take advantage of newer and better formats on the way. I don't know what they are, but they are coming. It takes only suffering through 15 minutes of one of those recent back-patting contests to believe something better has to come about. The bar is so low, what new idea could fail to clear it?

Recent polling shows that in

Recent polling shows that in Southern states, Herman Cain is leading, with Newt Gingrich in second place, and Rick Perry and Mitt Romney trailing behind both.

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