Branstad will seek to change GOP presidential candidate debate rules

Governor Terry Branstad will appeal to television networks and the Republican National Committee leadership to allow more GOP presidential candidates to participate in debates, Radio Iowa’s reported today. It’s not every day I agree with Iowa’s governor, especially on a matter of political fairness, but Branstad got this one right.  

The Republican presidential field is shaping up to be the largest in the era of televised debates, and perhaps the largest ever. As of today, eleven well-known candidates have announced plans to seek the GOP nomination. In alphabetical order, they are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz, business leader Carly Fiorina, Senator Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former New York Governor George Pataki, Senator Rand Paul, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator Marco Rubio, and former Senator Rick Santorum.

At least five more Republicans have signaled the intention to run for president: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Ohio Governor John Kasich, celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. (UPDATE: Trump launched his campaign on June 16.) I’m discounting the various obscure business owners who also call themselves GOP presidential candidates, because they won’t be invited to television debates under any scenario.

Twelve or fourteen or sixteen candidates can’t have a substantive discussion on public policy over 90 minutes or two hours. So television networks are taking matters into their own hands. Matea Gold reported for the Washington Post,

The [Fox News] network will require contenders to place in the top 10 in an average of the five most recent national polls in the run-up to the event, narrowing what is expected to be a field of 16 or more by the Aug. 6 event in Cleveland.

The rule could trigger an early rush of spending by lower-tier candidates seeking to boost their standing in national surveys before the pivotal first forum.

Meanwhile, CNN laid out a different approach for the second debate on Sept. 16, which will be split into two parts – one featuring the top 10 candidates in public polling and a second that will include lower-tiered candidates who garner at least 1 percent in polls. The forum, being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., will also require participants to have at least one paid campaign worker in two of the four early voting states.

The Republican National Committee moved earlier this year to limit the number of debates during the primary season, taking no steps to restrict participation by declared candidates. However, RNC Chair Reince Priebus recently expressed support for the Fox News and CNN criteria.

No clearly-defined top tier has emerged in this year’s polling, either nationally or in early caucus and primary states. Rather, Walker has led several polls, with a few other candidates exceeding 10 percent and several others clumped together between 3 and 10 percent. The rules proposed by Fox News and CNN reward a clown with high name recognition (Trump) while potentially excluding the only woman in the GOP field as well as Kasich, a major swing-state governor.

Even if Fiorina and Kasich were able to move into the top ten candidates in next month’s polls, the difference between the tenth- and eleventh-ranked candidate will surely be well within any poll’s margin for error.

Branstad spoke about the issue at his regular weekly press conference this morning. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson posted highlights and the audio:

“I intend to talk to Reince Priebus about it because I think it’s important to have an open process and one that is fair to all participants,” Branstad said. [..]

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Branstad said. “If there’s this many candidates, why not have two panels and let them randomly select who’s on each panel? So then the public gets to see all the candidates and you don’t limit it by who’s got the most money and that sort of thing.”

A group of prominent New Hampshire Republicans released a letter last week, making the same argument. Branstad said he’ll call FOX News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes to make the case for giving all the GOP candidates a place on the debate stage. Back in 1990, Ailes was in charge of the campaign ads Branstad ran in his re-election campaign.

Side note: I didn’t know that bit of trivia about Ailes’ work during the 1990 gubernatorial campaign here.

Branstad’s idea strikes me as a fair compromise, but I doubt Fox executives will agree to broadcast two full-length debates without all of the best-known candidates in any one panel.

Similarly, I have trouble seeing Priebus apply any leverage to the cable news networks on debate rules. He will want to save his political capital for other battles with CNN.

Naturally, Branstad is most concerned with giving Iowa Republican caucus-goers a chance to evaluate all candidates before next February. His remarks today did not address the separate question of whether GOP debates after the first few caucuses and primaries will include all candidates who are still campaigning. Earlier this year, RNC officials

said early debates would almost certainly include the declared candidates. But unless a candidate finishes in the top ranks in early contests, he or she might be excluded from later debates.

That rule wouldn’t have been needed in earlier cycles, because presidential candidates who performed poorly in the first primaries and caucuses have tended to drop out quickly. Nowadays, super-PACs funded by one or more highly motivated megadonors can keep non-viable candidates afloat. The new RNC policy could spell trouble for Senator Ted Cruz, who has vowed to take his campaign’s fight for delegates all the way to the Republican National Convention. (Good luck with that.)

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Speaking of Trump, here’s a thought experiment: can you imagine a message less appealing to Iowans than the billionaire’s recent boasting to Josh Hafner of the Des Moines Register?

Trump: I’m the most successful person ever to run for president. I mean, off the record, Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney was – I have a Gucci store that’s worth more money than Romney.

Hafner: You gotta give me that quote on the record. That’s amazing.

Trump: I’ll give it to you on the record. You know my store on Fifth Avenue and 57th. It’s called Gucci, right?

Hafner: Yeah, I know Gucci.

Trump: You know Gucci. Gucci store is worth more money than Romney. Romney disappointed us. He ran a horrible campaign. We can’t let that happen again. [Aside to press secretary Hope Hicks, who was also on the call] I knew he’d like that quote. I was afraid, Hope, that he’d like that quote.

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  • Ho hum

    I’m going to bed now. Wake me up in about a year when the combatants will be Hillary and Jeb. It’ll take me a minute to remember I’m not in the early 90’s.  These people are like bad house guests who never leave.