The Debate Game

May 27, 2015 — With yet another Republican ready to announce his presidential campaign tomorrow, last week’s declaration from two media sources saying they are going to limit the number of televised debate participants to 10 will soon ignite a firestorm of protest. It is probable that the question surrounding who is and is not invited to participate will probably create more intense political fireworks than the formal debates themselves.

It’s clear that Fox News and CNN want to have manageable television programs, hence the arbitrary limits placed upon who can attend. The fact that they want to base their exclusion on inexact national polls, using a mathematical formula that no pollster would deem legitimate (averaging diverse surveys), in order to produce an imaginary top 10 will certainly lead to extensive discussion and dissent, and possibly even legal challenges.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki is set to become the next official presidential candidate, and he would likely be one of the people excluded from the televised debates, assuming his effort does not catch fire between now and summer. Pataki is a three-term governor of New York, one of only three Republicans to hold this position since the early 1920s. The other two are Nelson Rockefeller, who would later become vice president, and Thomas E. Dewey, winner of the 1948 Republican presidential nomination but loser to President Harry Truman (D) in what was one of the more memorable campaigns of the 20th Century.

Pataki, a state legislator and former Mayor of Peekskill, was a long-shot winner in 1994 when he unseated veteran New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), an obvious national figure. Therefore, the ex-chief executive who has already accomplished what many thought was an impossible political feat more than 20 years ago, believes lightning could again strike for him against all odds in 2016.

But someone like Pataki, as well as candidates like two-term Ohio Gov. John Kasich, internationally known businessman Donald Trump, two-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum (who won 11 states against Mitt Romney), ex-four-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Virginia governor and Republican National Committee chairman Jim Gilmore and possibly renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson, could find themselves barred from participating in the televised debates.

The huge field of candidates, a number that could go as high as 18, does not lack for accomplishments. This makes a selection based upon arbitrary polling all the more controversial. It will be especially contentious if the networks eliminate Fiorina, the only woman in the field, or Carson, an African American, or Indian American Jindal. Or, can the party stand the barring of the two-term governor of a state (Kasich – Ohio) that they desperately need to carry in the general election?

The arguments against such exclusionary decisions will range far beyond simple polling numbers. None of the eliminations portend to be good politics for the Republican Party’s image, even if curtailing the number of debaters might make sense from a television production perspective.

Therefore, the networks’ decision to prevent certain candidates from debating, and their criteria for doing so, is going to create major problems. Before the first officially sanctioned debate currently scheduled for Aug. 15 in Cleveland begins, expect an even greater, and probably much more interesting, verbal contest about who is allowed to participate.

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