PETER ROFF: Why Are The Republican Presidential Debates So Bad?

On November 8, most of the Republicans still in the race for the party’s 2024 nomination gather in Miami for the third GOP presidential debate, hosted by NBC in partnership with Rumble, a Canada-based online media platform.

We’ll pause for a moment for station identification while you ask yourself, “Why?” The previous debates had all the charm of a dumpster fire. They didn’t help the candidates differentiate themselves from each other or from former President Donald J. Trump, whom the polls all agree is the person most likely to win the nomination.

If debates don’t do either of those things and don’t help the party grow its vote, why have them? No one, comparatively speaking, is watching. The numbers are way down from the previous two cycles, something most analysts attribute to Trump’s absence.

There may be a better explanation. Too many candidates on the stage, too much name-calling, and too many interruptions make it difficult for even well-informed voters to follow what’s going on.

It’s easy to see why. The format lends itself to chaos. The media personalities who ask the questions invariably focus on things Republican primary voters don’t care much about. Instead of asking about jobs, taxes, and the crisis on the border, the handful of presidential wannabes who’ve qualified for a place on the stage get questions about abortion, January 6 and, believe it or not, UFOs.

The lack of substance damages the party’s image. That’s especially painful given the surveys conducted by reputable firms like Gallup that now show the American electorate trusts the Republicans more than the Democrats to handle what survey respondents identify as the country’s most pressing issues.

It’s not all hopeless. Changes can be made that will help, starting with the abolition of the ridiculous rule that allows one candidate to jump in with a response if one of the others mentions them. If it can’t be eliminated, it should be modified so that the time taken to respond is deducted from what’s been allotted for closing statements.

If the candidates are forced to choose between “talking now or talking later,” things would move along more swiftly. It would certainly reduce the grandstanding that plagued the first two contests.

The quality of the conversation would also be improved if the moderators’ questions required the candidates to discuss their solutions to the nation’s problems compared to President Joe Biden’s. That’s really the point, isn’t it? Not whether former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has a better plan to deal with the national debt than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would do a better job protecting the U.S. border with Mexico than North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Everyone on the stage in Miami should be focused on who’s the best candidate to go against Biden, not each other. That may sound like it puts the cart before the horse, but it’s really the most important thing. GOP primary voters and caucus attendees should come away from each debate with a growing sense of which candidate provides the best opportunity to beat the incumbent president.

Trump will be in Miami – but at a rally, not the debate. He’ll crash the news coverage without setting foot on the stage, which is how he wants it. The polls have him casting a long shadow over the others. That’s good for him, but it doesn’t guarantee the best ideas will carry the day, let alone get an airing. If the Republicans want to win, they have to provide the American people with what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to call “an agenda worth voting for.”

Absent that, they’re more likely to lose than not. That means getting Trump on the debate stage, which won’t happen until the field narrows to the point he concludes that remaining out of the debates creates the opportunity for one of the other candidates to break out of the pack and challenge his considerable lead.

Party leaders like RNC Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel and Dave Bossie, the Maryland GOP committeeman who’s been tasked with overseeing them, are smart politicos. They understand the stakes. Trump-less debates heavy on the harangues with little substance don’t help the party win. GOP voters deserve better.

Peter Roff on November 4, 2023

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