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Sixteen Candidates in One Debate? It’s Tournament Time!


…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:

1 2 3 4 5
Bush Huckabee Graham Santorum Fiorina Rubio
Carson Fiorina Santorum Graham Jindal Paul
Christie Trump Huckabee Paul Rubio Perry
Cruz Paul Pataki Rubio Santorum Huckabee
Fiorina Carson Perry Huckabee Bush Kasich
Graham Perry Bush Carson Pataki Walker
Huckabee Bush Christie Fiorina Trump Cruz
Jindal Rubio Kasich Trump Carson Pataki
Kasich Pataki Jindal Perry Walker Fiorina
Pataki Kasich Cruz Walker Graham Jindal
Paul Cruz Walker Christie Perry Carson
Perry Graham Fiorina Kasich Paul Christie
Rubio Jindal Trump Cruz Christie Bush
Santorum Walker Carson Bush Cruz Trump
Trump Christie Rubio Jindal Huckabee Santorum
Walker Santorum Paul Pataki Kasich Graham

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.


  1. jerry 2015-07-08

    Have a pool with the proceeds going to the South Dakota Democrats on who will be in the brackets and how it goes forward. Or a calcutta, kind of like cow pie bingo. Sour 16, one for the ages.

  2. Richard Schriever 2015-07-08

    I like this idea – especially the archive availability. However, I have another that would be more appealing to the competitive natures of these pols, possibly more likely to gain their approval/participation.

    Set it up like an actual championship tournament in say – softball, or wrestling.
    Simply randomly match up the 16 candidates in head-to head debates, and then match the winners vs. each other. Make it double elimination, so that if randomness matches the two best debaters in an early round, the loser of that match get’s to work their way back through “wrestle-back” rounds towards the final pairing. Also have a 3rd/4th place preliminary to the final.

    Might also want to charge them an “entry fee” :)

  3. mike from iowa 2015-07-08

    Raphael Cruz won’t debate anyone from a lesser IVY school which includes most of the wingnut candidates.

  4. mike from iowa 2015-07-08

    For the record,I’m really not interested at all in what these people have to say about anything. It will be decidedly anti-American and pro-wealthy. Less taxes for the wealthy and less welfare for those who actually need and benefit from it.

  5. Jenny 2015-07-08

    I wonder who the Corporate Elitists will choose this time for president. I hope it’s not Hillary. It will positively dreadful if it’s another Bush again also. Sanders has probably had a talking to by the FBI. Jesse Ventura has a true story about his backroom FBI visit when he won the Governorship as an Independent in MN.

  6. mhs 2015-07-08

    I prefer the Miss America approach. Let them all walk around a lot, do a two minute ‘talent’ speech of their choosing, then answer one really annoying question from a moderator. Group production number would be optional. Most of the mutts like Cruz are only running to prop up their future media careers so why not treat their campaigns for what they are?

  7. mikeyc, that's me! 2015-07-08

    Listening to those morons sounds like
    pure torture. Same as Fox news.

  8. Wayne Pauli 2015-07-08

    I think they are a who’s who of the next FOX news talking heads. what a sorry bunch. Is this really the best they can offer? No interesting personalities, no rags to riches stories, no chutzpah!! Come on GOP, at least recycle Cheney

  9. larry kurtz 2015-07-08

    Rubio/Fiorina destined for history, dudes; you read it here first.

  10. larry kurtz 2015-07-08

    Jeb/Condi might be fun.

  11. mike from iowa 2015-07-08

    Condi can’t read.

  12. larry kurtz 2015-07-08

    Graham/ Mia Love would solve that rotating First Lady dealio.

  13. Bill Dithmer 2015-07-08

    That pool sounds cool. Pick the candidate and their vp.

    The Blindman

  14. Bill Dithmer 2015-07-08

    I prefer full contact debates on the GOP side.

    The Blindman

  15. owen 2015-07-08

    I’m going to make some popcorn, grab a beer and sit back and enjoy the show.

  16. Roger Cornelius 2015-07-08

    Geez!! Only 16 candidates so far, there is still time for Sarah, right?

    Quite frankly I’d rather see a free-for-all debate, with all 16 going after each other, maybe we could call it the “Brawl of America”.

  17. Nick Nemec 2015-07-08

    The Republican National Committee had to trade the clown car in on a prison bus to accommodate all the candidates.

  18. Bob Newland 2015-07-08

    I like the “Miss America” format suggested above. I anticipate the swimsuit part lasciviously.

  19. Jenny 2015-07-08

    It doesn’t really matter, the two parties have pretty much merged as one anyway.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-07-08

    Richard, straight Sweet-16 bracket or double elimination are viable possibilities. I like five prelim rounds to (1) produce five debates for every candidate, putting lots of material on the record for bloggers and other attentive voters to study and discuss, and (2) allow a really good candidate to recover from one flukish loss.

    In HS debate, we usually use the prelims then finals model. However, in our national-qualifying tournament, we use double elimination.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-07-08

    “Brawl of America”—Roger, that’s exactly why I don’t like the current spectacles.

  22. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-07-08

    Yes, “Doofus of America” is an excellent plan.

    On the other hand, I like “Yawn of America” too.

    Instead of a clown car or prison paddy wagon, how about “Cash Cab”? One of Trump’s chauffer’s could drive, with the IRS riding shotgun. They’d have to rat out their corporate owners or be forced to ride in the cab forever, like the guy riding the MTA in the folk song.

  23. MJL 2015-07-08

    I say you could follow a national tournament style. Rounds 1 – 3 will be judge by a panel of 3. The panel should be made of members of the Tea Party, Fox News talking heads, and 8 people selected by Reince Priebus. Those that receive at least 2 of the 3 judges votes win the round. Candidates that win at least two of the three rounds will be placed in the quarter-final debates.

    If there are not eight candidates with two wins, then all candidates with one win will be placed in a cage with a gun, picture of Ronald Regan, a crucifix, a copy of Obama’s birth certificate. The final positions will be filled by the last living candidates in the cage.

    The quarter-final (top 8) will take place in front of a national audience where GOP voters will get the opportunity to text, tweet, or call in their favorite candidate. The top four candidates will get to make the final run for office, while the losing four will be sent to Mexico and have their US citizenship revoked.

    That would make for an interesting primary.

  24. Roger Cornelius 2015-07-08

    There is one certainty about the debates, the top contenders are going to get Trump out of the race, if they can.
    Trump’s recent obsession accompanied by his radical views on immigration are pissing off the GOP powers.
    If the debates are going to have any legitimacy, the tea party candidates will have to go.

  25. mike from iowa 2015-07-09

    Trump claims he’ll win the Latino vote. Apparently he believes insults make the heart grow fonder or else he plans on paying for each vote.

  26. Jenny 2015-07-09

    Cory, I think sometime you should tell us your story sometime.

  27. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-07-09

    I like MJL’s plan, especially the cage part.

  28. mikeyc, that's me! 2015-07-09

    Hilarious!…..and perfect.

  29. Douglas Wiken 2015-07-09

    The GOP lunatics are trying build their own asylum. And I think Jim Webb just jumped into the clown car yesterday…17 and still counting.

  30. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-07-09

    MJL! You’re getting feisty in your advancing years. ;-)

    Jenny, my story? Which one?

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