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Primary Debates Past and Present


With the first GOP presidential primary debate tonight, we look at the field and assess whether primary debates really matter anyway.

With apologies for being the bearer of bad news, the 2024 election is upon us. Officially. Tonight marks the first Republican primary debate of the presidential election cycle. (Democrats will not hold any debates during the nominating season.)


Set for 9 p.m. ET at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee and airing live on the Fox News Channel, the debate stage will feature just eight of the 15 Republicans running for the party’s presidential nomination. Former President Donald Trump has elected not to participate, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina governor and U.S. United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum will be on hand. The rest of the candidates did not meet the polling and fundraising requirements that the Republican National Committee (RNC) had set as thresholds to participate.


How does this field compare to past years and have primary debate performances ever really, truly mattered anyway? Let’s take a look, but first: what can we expect the debate to look and feel like tonight?


What Can Viewers Expect Tonight?

Under the RNC’s rules, GOP presidential contenders were not only vying for a spot on the debate stage, they were vying for a premium place on it.


Candidates will be situated on the stage according to where they currently stand in public polls. As the candidates in second and third place (again, primary frontrunner President Trump will not participate in tonight’s event), Gov. DeSantis and entrepreneur Ramaswamy will be at the center of the stage. Moving out from the left and right will be Pence and Haley, then Christie and Scott, and, finally, Hutchinson and Bargum.


The debate will be two hours long and will be moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum from the Fox News Channel. According to ABC News, candidates will not give opening remarks and will have one minute to answer questions. They also will have 30 seconds to respond in instances in which other candidates invoke them and 45 seconds for closing statements. Questions will cover both foreign and domestic policy matters.


According to National Public Radio (NPR), the GOP candidates will focus on Americans’ “personal sense of wellbeing.” Wisconsin Republican strategist Bill McCoshen warned GOP candidates not to focus too much on the past or what they may view as an unfair 2020 election. He told NPR, “Every second that we spend talking about the 2020 election is a second lost, because we’re not talking about the economy. At the end of the day, voters always vote their pocketbook first.”


Candidates also will walk a fine line when it comes to the frontrunner-in-absentia, former President Donald Trump — but, make no mistake, the former president will face criticism even though he will not be on the stage. As the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill noted this morning, “Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have made their respective let’s-save-the-nation-from-Trump entreaties the centerpieces of their campaigns.”


While there will be fireworks inside the Fiserv Forum, we also might see sparks flying off the debate stage. Even though their candidate will not be participating tonight, members of the Trump campaign are on the ground in Milwaukee and ready to mobilize against their opposition. These operatives will be barred from Fox news’ post-debate “spin room,” however, which is where staff go to boast about their candidate’s performance — or trying to explain away any “oops moments.”


Politico also has reported GOP primary candidates Perry Johnson and Larry Elder are threatening legal action against the RNC for not letting them participate in the debate. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said the “rules are the rules.”


And, based on the past, the rules are there for a reason.


A Less Crowded Debate Stage

The eight-person lineup for tonight’s debate is small compared to primary debates of the recent past.


As noted above, candidates vying for the GOP nomination had to meet certain polling and fundraising criteria in order to be invited by the RNC to participate in tonight’s debate. Those criteria exist in order to limit the number of people on the stage and, hopefully, reduce the chaos of past debates.


Democrats outlined similar criteria in 2020 when there was no incumbent from their party running for president. To qualify for their party’s first primary debates in 2019, the 29 Democrats running for the nomination also had to meet either polling or fundraising criteria. If more than 20 qualified candidates met one of these thresholds, the two criteria were to then be evaluated in combination per an outlined set of tiebreaking rules.


Exactly 20 candidates qualified for the first debate. The party didn’t need a tiebreaker, but it split the debate field into two anyway. Ten candidates participated in the first evening. The same number were on stage the second night.


Republicans had used this tactic during the 2016 election cycle. The party’s first debate was August 6, 2015. Due to the large number of candidates running for nomination (there were 18), the field was split into two with the less popular candidates on stage earlier in the evening and the top candidates commanding “prime time.” The prime time debate attracted 24 million viewers, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, made it the most watched live broadcast of a non-sporting event in cable television history.


The Republican primary field in 2012 (when Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama was running for reelection) was smaller. Only ten GOP candidates got into that race.


The situation was similar four years prior. As President George W. Bush prepared to leave the White House, 12 Republicans competed to be his successor. Two were already out of the race by the first debate so there were ten people on the debate stage during the RNC’s first debate. That year, eight Democrats vied for their party’s nomination. All eight were on stage during the first debate.


Do Primary Debate Performances Matter?

As CNN’s Eric Bradner wrote early this morning, “While the front-runners have survived primary debates in recent presidential election cycles,” candidates “have seen their chances effectively dashed with poor debate performances.” He recalled:

  • 2012, when then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) forgot the name of one of the three federal departments he wanted to eliminate (which, ironically, he would later go on to lead).

  • 2016, when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) played right into New Jersey Gov. Christie’s hands. Gov. Christie mocked Sen. Rubio’s “memorized, 25-second speech” about Barack Obama … and moments later Sen. Rubio delivered that exact speech. “There it is, everybody,” Gov. Christie said when Rubio repeated his well-trod talking points.

  • 2020, when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) ended former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hopes for front-runnership when she said nominating Bloomberg to take on then-incumbent President Trump would be substituting “one arrogant billionaire for another.”


A February 2016 article in The New Yorker reminded readers that, going into the Republican primary debates, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the frontrunner. The debates changed that. At the first two debates “Bush seemed nervous and uncomfortable, and it was sorely evident to one and all that he didn’t know how to respond to [Donald] Trump,” the article said. “[W]hen Bush finally did challenge Trump — during debates in December and January — his counterattacks were pretty effective. By then, though, it was too late. Much as the Obama campaign succeeded, during 2011 and 2012, in defining Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy, Trump succeeded in defining Bush as a listless dynastic politician.”


These moments can change voters’ minds.


In 2015, the news platform Vox released a video that concluded general election debates do not matter much to voters … but primary election debates do. It cited a study that found 60 percent of voters changed the person they intended to vote for after watching a primary debate. (In general elections, only 14 percent of voters changed their minds.)


In addition to the Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops moment” cited by CNN’s Bradner, Vox focused on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012. Gov. Pawlenty was seen as one of the main challengers to frontrunner Mitt Romney, but Vox said after the debates voters said they were not sure Gov. Pawlenty was forceful enough to stand up to incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama. Pawlenty was “too nice,” voters concluded based on the governor’s debate performance.


Vox explained that primary voters are not just looking for someone they agree with (they probably already do agree on most issues since they and the candidate share a party) — they are looking for “a winner” — specifically, someone who can beat the other party’s candidate in a general election.


According to polls, this cycle most GOP voters think that person is Donald Trump. (As Axios noted this morning, “No candidate has lost a party’s nomination with a polling margin like former President Trump’s.”) Will another Republican candidate emerge tonight as a winner capable of taking on an incumbent Democrat?


We’ll definitely be watching to see.

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