Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Why the field for the next GOP debate should have been even smaller


Fox Business Network announced the candidates who made the two stages for the next GOP debate, which it will televise next Tuesday night, and the only problem I see is that the cuts didn't go deep enough.

Instead of 10 candidates in the primetime debate, there will be eight. Instead of everyone else qualifying for the "kids table" debate beforehand, three of the candidates (George Pataki, Lindsey Graham and Jim Gilmore) will have to watch all the festivities on TV like the rest of us. That leaves four in the undercard, with Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee being relegated from the top group.

The thresholds for qualifying were averages of 2.5 percent (primetime) and 1 percent (kids table) in four recent, national polls. That apparently includes rounding up to the nearest percentage point, since both Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum averaged only 0.5 percent. Perhaps that was an effort to keep the undercard from being a two-man show between Christie and Huckabee, but I'd have solved that by setting the primetime threshold at 3 percent, with no rounding. That would have pushed John Kasich and Rand Paul down into the lower group, cut Jindal and Santorum altogether -- and resulted in two much better debates.

Having only eight on the main stage is an improvement. But a top tier of only six -- in descending order of polling position: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina -- would have been a much more manageable grouping and an even better chance to get into substance. The "two-hour" CNBC debate (which actually dragged on a little longer) included 84.5 minutes of speaking time for the candidates. That's an average of about 8.5 minutes apiece, though actual the individual times ranged was 6:22 to 10:13. Divided by eight candidates, that average grows to 10.5 minutes -- better, but still not great. But divided among six, it would have been more than 14 minutes each. That finally would have given each candidate enough time to really dig into the issues; witness how both the sole Democratic debate, with five candidates, and each GOP undercard debate, with four to six candidates, have been deemed more substantive than the primetime GOP debates. It's not the candidates, and it isn't even mostly the moderating (which has been adequate in two of the three debates). It's the format.

For the next debate, I hope to see no more than four or five candidates on the main stage -- even if that means leaving out a name as big as Jeb Bush. We are at the point where voters deserve to see more substance, and where candidates should have earned the chance to give it to them.


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.