While following with growing dismay the disastrous second Republican presidential candidate debate, I recalled a Georgia Senate debate nearly a half-century ago in which several candidates on the crowded stage began comments with the line: “The real question is …” until one of them said, “The real question is whether anyone is still watching.”
The same question could have been asked last night as the inherently dubious contest between candidates chasing the absent Donald Trump at a great distance degenerated into chaos. Please, please, Republicans — let’s not do that again! Trump himself obviously agrees (as reported by the Daily Caller), even though the nightmare on the stage at the Reagan Library in California probably benefitted him: “They have to stop the debates. Because it is just bad for the Republican Party. They are not going anywhere. There is not going to be a breakout candidate.”
Before we even get to the futility of the debates in separating sheep from goats, let’s address the possibility that the second debate was so bad mainly because the Fox-Univision moderators totally failed to control the warring debaters. They seemed to lose their grip on the microphones from the get-go, presumably because the candidates had been heavily briefed about the need to seize time and take the initiative. They constantly talked over each other and squabbled like grade-schoolers on a poorly supervised playground. Doug Burgum ranted constantly off-camera; at first I thought his voice was that of a heckler in the audience. It was unwatchable for long stretches.
But in defense of the moderators (who did try to ask challenging questions the candidates mostly refused to answer), the undisciplined conduct of the alleged debaters was an accurate reflection of the desperation they are experiencing, individually and collectively, about the state of the race. With Trump holding a massive lead both nationally and in all the early states, time is running out for anyone to make the contest competitive. Ron DeSantis has been sinking like a stone everywhere other than in Iowa, where he trails Trump by over 30 points. Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, and most recently Nikki Haley have had brief moments of buzz and momentum, only to fall back into the pack. And, of course, the front-runner is tormenting them by skipping the debates and even counterprogramming to depress viewership.
These dynamics won’t change so long as the nomination contest features one giant looming over a field of 90-pound weaklings. Indeed, if there was an air of desperation on the stage in Simi Valley, how bad might it be in Miami at the next scheduled debate on November 8?
Short of calling it off, the RNC could significantly heighten the qualification requirements for the stage to get rid of some of the straphangers and create a more controlled event, while increasing the pressure on Trump to participate. Right now, the RNC is only requiring a 4 percent showing in two national polls or one national and one early-state poll. That’s too lax, particularly given the wildly varying quality of pollsters releasing GOP polls this year. How about a 10 percent polling threshold? Not even Burgum is wealthy enough to buy his way past that requirement with an ad blitz. And candidates like Mike Pence and Chris Christie, whose deep unpopularity among Republicans means there is no way they can win the nomination, would likely be excluded as well. Would, say, a Ron DeSantis–Nikki Haley debate be more useful than the ridiculous scrum we saw last night? Probably so, though that’s hardly saying much.
But the safer route for Republicans would be to bag debates and let the candidates make their questionable cases to early-state voters, who would then “cull” the field more definitively than any debates or polls could possibly do. Earlier this week, I made the case for treating the Republican contest as a real thing until voters weigh in, no matter how sure we are that Trump will ultimately prevail to win his third consecutive nomination. That doesn’t mean inflicting pointless and fractious debates among bottom-feeders on unwary viewers tuning in to see what one of our two major parties has on offer. The likely surrender of the GOP to a serially indicted insurrectionist is humiliating enough.