Five gone, seven to go.
Republican presidential debate season is not even halfway over, but already there’s a palpable feeling of repetition. A huge crowd of candidates shuffle onstage. The moderator asks about Donald Trump. Someone at the far end of the podium line insults Donald Trump. Donald Trump laughs and comments on someone’s appearance. There is a lot of yelling.
Unless Trump drops out of the race, there’s no guarantee that the next seven debates won’t follow that same line of questioning. But at least one thing might change before the next contest: That huge crowd of nine or 10 candidates might be sliced down to about six.
On Tuesday, Fox Business Network announced that it would be changing its criteria for candidates to qualify for its upcoming main stage debate in January. The criteria, it noted, would limit the number of participants to as few as six.
To qualify for the primetime debate, candidates would either have to place in the top six of the five most recent national polls; in the top five of the five most recent Iowa polls; or in the top five of the five most recent New Hampshire polls, the network said. Right now, only businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meet those qualifications.
That means that candidates like former HP executive Carly Fiorina, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — all accustomed to the main stage debate — would be bumped down to the oft-called “kid’s table” debate of lower polling candidates. It’s not a great development for them, but it’s a welcome one for viewers, who have been subjected to some truly unruly debates.
The unruliness has undoubtedly been in part because of the nature of the Republican party candidates themselves. After all, the leading candidate is a brash reality television star who prides himself in saying outrageous things, and many of his opponents have realized their best bet is to follow suit. But a too-large crowd is also another factor — as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted months ago, a two-hour, ten person debate means that each candidate gets to speak, on average, for about seven minutes. In addition, it’s hard to see real debate when so little time is afforded to each participant — candidates know that attacking their opponents give their opponents more airtime, so many times they just stick to their own policy platforms, and hope someone else will attack them.
The Atlantic’s David Graham explains it like this: In a 10-person setting, “the result is something more like a round-robin quiz than a debate — every candidate can answer a question, but it’s hard to create any serious discussion or exchange of ideas, and the only way a candidate can delve into a topic is at the expense of his or her rival’s given time.”
So here’s hoping that winnowing down the main stage field will help foster a more productive, watchable debate. And who knows — maybe some candidates will even drop out by then.