In the shadow of 2016’s rambunctious and borderline noxious GOP presidential debates, the Republican National Committee is considering not just tinkering with the format, but adopting potentially drastic changes in anticipation of a crowded field.
The internal discussions include a push to get rid of debate moderators altogether, a move that could rankle network executives in an era where just over one in 10 GOP voters say they trust mass media. If overcrowded fields are now the norm in American politics, the RNC debate discussions have taken that into account—but that’s about where the agreement stops.
As The Daily Beast reported in November, RNC members during a closed doors meeting following the midterms tossed around a figure of upwards of 20 candidates expected to run in 2024. Instead of doing the so-called varsity and JV debates from 2016—where top-tier candidates debated on one night, while the no chance also-rans parried on a second night—the RNC is looking at holding separate debates with random draws (a format the Democrats adopted in 2020), according to a GOP source with direct knowledge of the committee discussions on the 2024 debate schedule.
“There would be parameters for people getting into a debate, such as how they’re polling or how much money they’ve raised, how many donors they have. Those are the kind of things we’ll look at,” the Republican operative said.
One of the most notable pitches is from two-time presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who wants the RNC to be done with the moderators once and for all.
“Moderators are at best useless and most often hurtful to the process,” Huckabee told The Daily Beast in a lengthy email. “A REAL debate is about the candidates, not the preening ‘pretty people’ from the anchor desk who make it about themselves.”
Instead of a moderator or team of anchors behind a desk with the ability to intervene and ask follow-up questions, Huckabee proposed something much different.
“The clock should be evenly divided among the candidates on the stage,” he continued. “Each candidate given exactly same amount of time. Candidate controls his or her own clock. Once the candidate uses his/her time, that candidate is finished and the mic turned off for the rest of the evening until the closing remark [sic].”
Huckabee’s proposal was met with positive reactions from the committee, according to the source with direct knowledge, but also tempered expectations.
“He had a lot of great ideas, but I’m not sure if we can use all of them, because of the way we’re set up,” the operative said.
This is where the longstanding dance with the TV networks comes in, as well as what one presidential debates scholar described as the “cottage industry” of tinkering with debate formats.
“In general, it is a cottage industry, ongoing: let’s tinker with the format… if we could just make the right adjustments, we’re gonna build the right machine,” Mitchell S. McKinney, a leading debate scholar and Dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Akron, told The Daily Beast. “It never works. It comes down to responsible debaters.”
“We’ve had timekeepers, we’ve had all sorts of systems of bells and lights and whistles—you know, your time is up, your time is up—and, and guess what? It doesn’t work.”
There is, in fact, some historical precedent, according to McKinney, for Huckabee’s idea.
The debate scholar pointed to the 1992 vice presidential debate between Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and the late Vice Admiral James Stockdale. The trio were given two-minute opening statements at the start, but then things got unconventional when the candidates were prompted with topics to discuss first for a minute each, then for five minutes among themselves.
Quayle typified the flaws of the format when he purported to be asking Gore a question, only to then cut Gore off when answering to insist he was actually making a statement.
“So, in essence, they would sort of filibuster the time,” McKinney said.
For a candidate like Trump, it would be a chance to turn his allotted time into a mini-rally, irrespective of the topic at hand.
The Trump variable also brings up a central quandary for the RNC and the networks.
With the cash cow of ratings in the tens of millions and distribution network in place—even in the cord-cutting era—the networks still have leverage over the major parties, McKinney said, but Trump exploited the “symbiotic relationship” between the two by deploying his reality TV skillset.
“He would preview the debates, gee up the audience by attacking one of his opponents or saying something mean or nasty, and then we would all tune in to see how he was gonna take ’em on, and so the networks, they love this, right?” McKinney said.
The RNC, along with representatives at Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS did not return requests for comment.
Huckabee, a showman in his own right who hosted a show on Fox News for seven years before moving to his current hosting gig with Trinity Broadcasting Network, said both parties need to overhaul their primary debate formats, even if his idea isn’t the one they go with.
“If they don’t, they deserve to be used by TV networks as pawns in their pathetic program,” Huckabee said. “American Idol is a better process than the primary political debates.”
The GOP operative involved in the discussions said variations on the town hall format and issue-specific forums are also being considered, but the big challenges will remain the sheer size of the field and the Trump factor.
For McKinney, after all these years of studying debates, he said the RNC could save some time by copying what the Democrats did with random draws in 2020 and leave it at that.
“All kinds of things would work—if the candidates would be responsible and allow it to work.”