The Parties Are Ruining the Primary Debates

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand on stage before a Democratic
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand on stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Michigan-Flint, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

During this election, the Republican and Democratic parties have asserted unprecedented control over the primary debates, and the results have been disastrous.

Historically, the major parties have exercised limited influence over primary debates. Every four years, dozens of media entities and civic groups organically emerge to host primary debates featuring a range of innovative formats. In 2008, for example, there were 25 Democratic primary debates and 21 Republican primary debates. Similarly, four years ago, Republican candidates participated in 20 primary debates (there was no Democratic primary contest).

An abundance of primary debates is invaluable to our democracy. Debates allow voters to base their decisions on the candidates' discussions of important issues, rather than thirty-second television commercials financed by Super Pacs. A succession of debates ultimately exposes the limitations of candidates who lack detailed policy positions or are unable to think on their feet.

Yet, rather than celebrate the profusion of primary debates, the major parties denounced them. In February 2015, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, said, "I don't think having our candidates running around in a traveling circus and doing 23 debates, slicing and dicing each other is in the best interests of our party."

Indeed, the major parties are generally uninterested in maximizing voter education. Instead, they want to crown a viable nominee as swiftly as possible and shield that candidate from bruising attacks by intra-party rivals. Accordingly, both parties sought fewer primary debates and fewer candidates participating in them.

To accomplish their goals, the major parties took exceptional steps before this election to assert control over the primary debates. In 2015, both parties adopted the same radical, anti-democratic policy: if a candidate participates in a debate that is not sanctioned by the party, that candidate will be summarily excluded from debates approved by the party. This was the first time a major party has ever threatened to punish a candidate for participating in a primary debate.

Both parties used their newfound power over primary debates to sharply limit their number and prematurely winnow the playing field.

A whopping seventeen candidates were competing for the 2016 Republican nomination - the largest field in American history. Nonetheless, the Republican Party only scheduled a paltry twelve primary debates.

Since all seventeen candidates could not simultaneously participate in a debate, the Republican Party should have rotated the candidates through an initial round of debates. This would have provided each candidate an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters before polls were employed to exclude candidates from subsequent debates. Instead, beginning with the very first debate, the Republican Party established a two-tiered debating system, whereby front-runners were featured in primetime debates and those polling at the bottom were relegated to undercard debates. Several candidates with distinguished political careers - Senator Lindsay Graham, Governor Bobby Jindal, former Senator Rick Santorum and former Governor Rick Perry - were consigned to second-class debates from day one, which effectively extinguished their candidacies before they started.

Now that Trump is the overwhelming front-runner, the Republican Party must deeply regret limiting the number of debates and shutting out candidates who could have challenged him. The party's own anti-democratic debate reforms have now made it far more difficult for the party to stop Trump from cruising to victory.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has behaved worse. Initially, the Democratic Party only authorized six primary debates for the 2016 election and scheduled three of them on weekends (including a holiday weekend), when viewership declines.

The head of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, previously served as co-chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008. This election cycle, Ms. Schultz sought to coronate Clinton with minimal opposition to her candidacy by limiting debate viewership. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a vice-chair of the Democratic Party, publicly criticized the debate limitations; in retaliation, Schultz disinvited Gabbard from attending the first debate. Delegates at New Hampshire's annual Democratic Party convention were so incensed, they shouted down Ms. Schultz when she spoke, chanting "We want more debates!"

Once Clinton realized that she was facing a vibrant challenge from Bernie Sanders, she requested more primary debates to make her case to voters. On cue, the Democratic Party - which so strenuously rejected pleas for more debates from Sanders and Martin O'Malley last year - scheduled four more debates. Such blatant favoritism is shameful.

While bending over backwards to accommodate Clinton, the Democratic Party excluded Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig from the primary debates. Lessig was excluded because he failed to reach one percent in an average of national polls - but most pollsters did not even mention his name in their polling questions, making it impossible for him to gain entry despite raising $1 million in less than a month.

It is particularly important that primary debates are abundant and inclusive considering that the major parties have already made the debates in the general election so limiting and exclusionary. General election debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation that was jointly created by the Republican and Democratic parties in 1987 to seize control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters. Every four years, the Commission excludes third-party and independent candidates and allows the major party nominees to excessively shape the debate formats behind closed doors.

For the sake of our democracy, party control over presidential debates must be diminished. If the major parties only permit limited and exclusionary primary debates, and if the Commission on Presidential Debates shuts out third-party and independent challengers from general election debates, then only a handful of party-approved or celebrity candidates have a chance to run for president. This process makes it far more likely that Chelsea Clinton will face off against Ivanka Trump in twenty years.