I kept thinking that to myself watching the 2023 Republican primary debate. I love a good debate; it can help you understand your opponent’s point of view as well as challenge some of your own. In an ideal debate, both sides leave having learned something new and having their perceptions of the world challenged in a new way.
However, all of what I just said does not apply to how both of our major political parties administer their primary debates. These debates should serve as an opportunity for the electorate to analyze all of their options and decide who is the best fit to push the country forward. Instead, it has snowballed into an overpopulated mess filled with gimmicks and desperate grabs for attention instead of a substantive debate on policy.
Meaningful debate is impossible under our current system. This starts with the sheer volume of candidates who are on the stage. The first Democratic primary debate of 2020 contained 10 candidates, while this year’s Republican debate featured eight candidates.
As presidential historian Michael Beschloss points out, “But two hours – you’ve got eight candidates… dividing up the time, at best, maybe they’ll get 12 minutes each. They will be jockeying for prominence and airtime. So whatever we see of any of these candidates is likely to be very brief, but it’s better than nothing.”
These people are running for one of the most powerful positions in the world, and yet they are given roughly the same amount of time to argue why they should have all of that power as it takes to make a plate of scrambled eggs. In the post-Trump Republican Party, the best way to make those 12 minutes count is by attacking another candidate. The insults and cheap jabs create an environment that feels more like a high school cafeteria than a serious debate on the future of the country.
Compare this to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where as Beschloss notes, “They were both running for senator from Illinois. Each spoke for an hour. There was a 90-minute response, then a 30-minute response for that. The whole thing lasted three hours or more.” A debate this long would be unheard of today, but this is far closer to how we should have candidates debate.
These debates often don’t attract the candidates with the best ideas; they attract the candidates with enough financial and social capital to be able to afford the donor thresholds the parties use for candidates. This year’s Republican National Committee standards for this debate required candidates to “have received donations from at least 40,000 individuals, as well as hit 1% in either three qualifying national polls — or two national polls and two early state polls, each of which have to meet a slew of specifications.” This was a model similar to what the Democratic Party used in their 2020 primary to narrow down 20 candidates to 10 for the first debate. In addition, the fundraising standards change every cycle. This is because, unlike the presidential debates, which are overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates, primary debates are organized entirely by each party. And if there is an incumbent president in office who is seeking reelection, the president’s respective political party will not organize any debates.
Despite having some of the lowest approval numbers in the history of the United States, President Joe Biden does not have to worry about fielding a large pool of candidates who are more than capable of doing his job better than him. Instead, it allows him, and his party, to be complacent and not have to listen to their voters.
However, primary debates are not completely useless. Despite losing in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his brand of progressivism have gained far greater political weight within the Democratic Party due to the success of his initial primary campaign. For example, Sen. John Fetterman from Pennsylvania won his seat decisively in the 2022 midterms running on a similar platform to what Sanders ran in 2016.
On the Republican side, the impact that former President Trump has had due to his dominance in 2016 still looms. Despite running against him, Vivek Ramaswamy proudly declared him “the greatest president of the 21st century,” and six out of the eight candidates on the stage did not explicitly say no to endorsing him. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has based his entire campaign around “being Trump but more electable” while consistently trailing him by double digits in the polls. Trump’s grip over the party remains ironclad despite four separate criminal indictments and essentially requiring other candidates to denounce the results of the 2020 election prior to entering Republican politics.
I wish I could say something positive and hopeful about the future of primary debates but I can’t say I have much hope. However, I do know two words that can summarize the primary debate perfectly: