fb-pixelSo far the RNC debates have not done what they were supposed to. So, it appears, they are giving up after one last try. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
ANALYSIS

So far the RNC debates have not done what they were supposed to. So, it appears, they are giving up after one last try.

Moderators and candidates on stage during the third Republican presidential debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, on Nov. 8.SCOTT MCINTYRE/NYT

Until relatively recently the national political parties played no role at all in the presidential primary debates. If a media organization wanted to pay for one, and candidates showed up, it happened.

But after a chaotic 2012 primary that included so many debates that two were within 12 hours of each other, the Republican National Committee took control of the process and, in 2016, held sanctioned debates with their own rules. The idea was simple: they would get to pick the media organizations, and the locations, highlight their candidates, and winnow the field by setting qualifications to make the debate stage. Also by limiting the number of debates, they could help candidates manage their time better and get higher ratings.

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This worked out for them in 2016, and then for the Democrats, who adopted it in 2020. But just one election cycle later, the process has failed so much that after the debate on Wednesday night, the RNC has signaled they plan to walk away from the process entirely just as the primary season is heating up.

Consider what has happened in the 2024 Republican debate season so far: Not a single candidate dropped out because of the debates (they were broke or failed to catch on). The party’s front-runner has refused to participate and mocked them with counter-programming, sometimes holding events just a few miles away. Ratings, which were never that great, have gone down considerably each time. And the last debate featured a candidate – Vivek Ramaswamy – who used his opening question to call for RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel to resign. This past week the conservative network Newsmax has been loudly criticizing the RNC for not granting them a debate thus far, a further headache.

In other words, the debate process was getting out of hand for the RNC. With six weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the Washington Post reports the committee does not plan to not sanction any more debates meaning candidates can do whatever debates they want in the future.

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This leaves no plans for any future debates nor any benchmarks for candidates to meet — or fail to meet. In the absence of a party-controlled environment, networks and others will likely fill the void.

Reportedly, there are plans in the works for ABC News and its New Hampshire affiliate WMUR-TV to hold its traditional debate before the New Hampshire primary. If the RNC isn’t involved they could invite whomever they wanted to appear on stage. A lack of party-sanctioned contests would also open the door for less conventional debate sponsors and moderators, like, as Ramaswamy proposed, that there could be a debate moderated by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk. Such an idea would likely mean off-the-wall topics that could elicit answers that could hobble a candidate in the future and likely be hosted on a platform few would watch anyway.

Still, it is unclear what was accomplished in the previous debates anyway. Trump’s lead over the field has only grown, while the question of who is the main challenger to Trump has only grown murkier, as Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis duke it out for second place.

That is before even getting into how much of these debates have been shouting matches that have not portrayed the best of candidates, besides Haley, who has used the debates to catch momentum.

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Where things go from here logistically is murky, but politically they may have gone down as wasted hours for candidates and the public.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.