Gone Rogue: Time to Reform the Presidential Primary Debates

By Mark McKinnon

Mark McKinnonMark McKinnon

Shorenstein Center Reidy Fellow,
Fall 2011
Political Communications Strategist; Vice Chairman Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Read the full paper (PDF).


How would the course of history been altered had P.T. Barnum moderated the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858?

Today’s ultimate showman and on-again, off-again presidential candidate Donald Trump invited the Republican presidential primary contenders to a debate he planned to moderate and broadcast over the Christmas holidays. One of a record 30 such debates and forums held or scheduled between May 2011 and March 2012, this, more than any of the previous debates, had the potential to be an embarrassing debacle.

Trump “could do a lot of damage to somebody,” said Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. “And I suspect it’s not going to be to the candidate that he’s leaning towards. This is a man who says himself that he is going to run—potentially run—for the president of the United States starting next May. Why do we have that person moderating a debate?”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, also reacted: “I guarantee you, there are too many debates and we have lost the focus on what the candidates’ vision for America is… It’s evolved into making mistakes… [T]hat’s not what debates are supposed to be about, and I don’t think it’s helping the Republican Party or our candidates.”

In an interview with The New York Times, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called Trump’s debate “an invitation to a circus.”

Only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania accepted Trump’s invitation. When former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas declined, Trump called them “joke candidates.” But according to conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, “A debate in which the moderator chooses a nominee afterwards, I think, is a reality-TV show. It’s not a debate. It is a joke.”

The process of electing the next president of the United States is not a joke. Though Trump backed out of moderating the debate after broad criticism, it still leads us to the question: Does the current primary debate process best serve voters, the candidates, the parties and the nation, or is there a better way?

Read the full paper (PDF).