The Republican Party is set this week to take another step in its bid to take control of the 2016 presidential primary debate calendar and prevent what GOP officials have referred to as another “circus” that damages the nominee's general election prospects.
Republicans want to head off a repeat of the 2012 primary, which featured about 20 debates spread over nearly a year that provided hours of free television exposure to second-tier candidates who were underfunded and had minimal support. The process helped to artificially extend the GOP primary campaign and diminished Mitt Romney's ability to defeat President Obama later that fall.
This week, meeting in Memphis, Tenn., for its annual spring gathering, the Republican National Committee is scheduled, through a vote of party delegates, to create a “standing committee on debates” to govern the presidential primary debate process in 2016 and beyond. Through the new panel, the RNC plans to regulate how many presidential primary debates are held, when they're held, and which media outlets and journalists the party partners with to put them on.
The party plans to implement rules to enforce its control over the process to sufficiently discourage GOP presidential candidates from participating in non-sanctioned debates. RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said the party is consulting with potential television network debate partners to determine how the two sides can continue to collaborate on putting on the events under the new regime. Spicer said a 2016 GOP primary debate schedule could be announced this fall.
"This is not something that's happening in a vacuum," he said. "There is an understanding of the role of the media in these debates and of the editorial aspects of what they try to accomplish, and we're working with them to say: 'OK, here's what the party wants to accomplish.'"
Among RNC Chairman Reince Priebus' concerns is the desire to ensure that debate moderators ask the candidates substantive questions on issues important to GOP primary voters. Many Republican officials felt that the 2012 debates were often too focused on matters strictly of interest to the journalists asking the questions.
The effort was born out of recommendations made in the RNC's "Growth and Opportunity Project," an internal audit commissioned by the party in the wake of Obama's re-election.