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C-SPAN forum ‘outfoxes’ official GOP debate

Can it get any crazier? Fourteen candidates on one debate stage? Leading newspapers in three small early primary states are partnering with C-SPAN to sponsor the “Voters First Forum,” a prime time TV event inviting all announced GOP presidential candidates Monday.

Nuts, right? Maybe not. What’s at stake is a fundamental principle of democracy. Should voters have the first say on the candidates or should pollsters and Madison Avenue hired guns working for the candidates with the most money?

The newspaper-led three-state coalition is collaborating with C-SPAN in a battle with the Republican National Committee and Fox News, who are partnering on the first “official” GOP debate with rules limiting the debate to the 10 candidates registering highest in the polls. By the RNC-Fox rules, pollsters will eliminate seven of the 17 announced candidates, or about 41% of the field, six months before the first caucus-goers and primary voters cast ballots in the Forum coalition states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The pollsters won’t decide literally. They will use data reflecting the opinions of a random national sample of voters whom candidates can reach only via expensive paid advertising. So, to the biggest campaign treasury (and Super PAC nest egg) will go the victory — perhaps on the strength of just a one-week ad blitz. Anyone concerned about the dominant role of money in politics should favor the three-state plan over the RNC-Fox plan.

Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012 by visiting all 99 counties over many months. Candidates win in New Hampshire by meeting the voters one-on-one. The old quip has the typical Granite State voter saying “I only met him once, so I can’t vote for him.” This is confirmed by a Dartmouth College survey during the 1996 primary which found that 20% of New Hampshire voters met one of the leading presidential candidates one-on-one or in one of the innumerable small rallies which take place.

We should not winnow the field prematurely, nor based upon fickle polling data reflecting the opinions of poll respondents who may have seen only carefully crafted TV ads, with headshots of a candidate’s “best profile” and focus-group-tested messaging on the issues.

We should trust fellow citizens in these three small early primary/caucus states, whose small size makes spending big money impossible. These small-state voters vet the field in man-to-man discussions where sound bites don’t count, via personal contact which reveals whether the candidate is comfortable with people and comfortable in his or her own skin — with the nation watching via the ever-present media.

Once these early-primary voters have spoken, then the RNC and its TV partners can limit the debate lineup based upon the voting results. Until then all active candidates should be included.

What’s crazier: including fourteen candidates in the debate or excluding a three-term governor of one of our largest states. Let former New York Gov. George Pataki have his say. Republicans should celebrate such a huge talent pool, not restrict it.

So, the C-SPAN forum has the potential to be unwieldy and messy. That can be addressed in the rules for the debate. Or RNC-Fox could have accepted the alternative suggested by GOP leaders in the three states: two separate back-to-back debates, with the candidates randomly assigned to one or the other.

The RNC seems deathly afraid of a free-for-all from which the ultimate GOP nominee might emerge bloodied. Ironically, the huge size of the C-SPAN forum will probably prevent this. In a case of delicious irony, the C-SPAN Forum may be a model of decorum compared to the RNC-Fox affair, where the unpredictable and volatile Donald Trump, who will not be at the forum, may turn the debate into a circus.

In announcing the C-SPAN Forum, the New Hampshire Union Leader emphasized its pre-emptive scheduling just three days before the RNC-Fox event. The announcement ran under the feisty headline: “Outfoxed.” So tune in. It should be lively (but sane) and in conformity with the best principles of genuine participatory democracy.

As appeared in USA Today on Aug. 3, 2015.


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