…wherein I explain again why debate coaches should run the country.
The large number of candidates seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for President does make running a debate messy. Fox News thinks it can create a fair yet manageable debate structure by inviting only the ten candidates with the highest poll numbers to participate in its season-opening broadcast debate in Cleveland on August 6.
One media company putting ten candidates out of a field of sixteen on stage based on national polling six months before anyone votes is neither fair nor manageable. I care about fairness even for right-wing radicals like Rick Santorum and secessionist Court wreckers like Bobby Jindal, both of whom are struggling to make the Fox cut. Public opinion polls fifteen months from the election aren’t much different from luck of the draw, especially when we’re talking about the difference between Candidate #10 and Candidate #11. Luck of the draw should not exclude candidates from opportunities to speak to a national audience.
Of course, allowing all sixteen candidates into one debate is neither manageable nor informative. Follow Fox’s format and ask ten people on stage the same question, and by the time speaker #9 has had her say, the audience has forgotten what speaker #3 has said. Speaker #10 has to figure out whether he should try to address the glaring lies speakers #1 and #6 told, express solidarity with the winning point speaker #5 made, go for what’s fresh in everyone’s mind and sharply rebut what speaker #9 just said, or ignore everyone else’s comment and deliver his prepared one-minute statement. A whole bunch of competitors on stage can’t conduct a coherent conversation and engage with all of each others’ major points.
Folks interested in real debates would put the sixteen GOP candidates in a tournament structure and conduct an entire day of head-to-head debates. I’ve run a few debate tournaments; here’s how we debate coaches would put these sixteen candidates through a fair debate:
Make an index card for each candidate, randomize, then line the bottom half up against the top half. There’s Round 1. Write down each candidate’s Round 1 opponent on his or her card.
Then randomize and line up the new top half and bottom half. Check these new pairings: if you see that two candidates are hitting each other again, trade one card from that pairing with one card from another pairing so that both pairings are fresh pairings—i.e., so that no candidate debates the same candidate twice.
Write, randomize, repeat… presto! In ten minutes, I can generate a randomly generated five-round debate schedule for our sixteen GOP presidential candidates. The table shows lists all sixteen candidates in the far left (ha!) column, then shows whom each candidate would debate one-on-one in each round:
Note that you should use a consistent, blind algorithm to fix pairings. For example, suppose you shuffle the cards for Round 5 and deal Carly Fiorina versus Mike Huckabee. Dang—Fiorina and Huckabee already hit in Round 3. You’d really like to see Fiorina eat Chris Christie for lunch, and Fiorina and Christie haven’t met yet. You don’t put them together just because you want those specific candidates to debate. Instead, you should have some formal switching procedure—for instance, to make the above schedule, as I dealt conflicts, I would switch a conflicting card with the card immediately above it in the new round column. If that swap wouldn’t resolve the conflict, I’d go to the next card up. If I was at the top of the column, I’d go to the bottom card and work upwards as necessary. Follow the same card-swap/pairing-fix algorithm every time, and no one can accuse you of rigging the tournament.
Of course, five rounds with eight debates each won’t work for a typical broadcast television debate. But this is the 21st century: why should we follow the rules of typical broadcast television? We live stream all of the debates on eight YouTube channels. We start the tournament at noon, limit each debate to forty minutes, allow judges (expert panels of poli-sci and speech profs invited to judge in person, plus online polling among the Twitterazzi) twenty minutes to write their ballots and start each subsequent round on the hour. Everyone takes a nice long supper break, then we broadcast online and on TV a final round at 7 p.m. between the two candidates with the best win-loss records from those five preliminary rounds. (We can also squeeze in semi-finals at 7 p.m. on Fox News and Fox Business, then run the final at 8.)
Imagine it: forty head-to-head debates, all available live, all archived online for everyone to see. This one day of debates would allow each candidate to put more statements and more debate skill on the record than all six of the debates scheduled before the Iowa caucuses. If debates truly test candidates’ fitness for office, this fair and manageable tournament format would provide all interested voters more material on which to judge all candidates.