Why Those Messy, Chaotic, and Crazy Debates Were the One Thing Republicans Did Right in 2012

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 7 2014 3:37 PM

They Will Miss the Crazy

Why Republicans shouldn’t get rid of their messy, chaotic, and freewheeling primary debates.

Rick Santorum (L), Mitt Romney (2L), Newt Gingrich (R) and Ron Paul (2R) take part in The Republican Presidential Debate.
The GOP debates in 2012 saved the party from what surely would have led to a 50-state Obama landslide: nominating Rick Perry.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GettyImages

The Republican Party has “taken control” of its presidential primary debate process—putting a party committee in charge of its primary debates, and signaling that they will have fewer debates, with stricter rules, and fewer candidates. Slate’s John Dickerson has summed up the move by writing, “The Republican Party wants an orderly process so that their candidates can put their best foot forward,” and explaining that the plan is an effort to “take control of the crazy” that dominated the 2012 GOP debates.

Except for this: What is crazy is changing the one thing that actually worked well for Republicans in 2012—their unruly, burdensome, endless debate process. Sure, the candidates hated it. Sure, the party elders hated it. Yes, it was messy. But those messy, crazy, chaotic debates did more to give the GOP a fighting chance in 2012 than anything else the party did—and they are making a big mistake in undoing what worked so well. 

The GOP debates in 2012 saved the party from what surely would have led to a 50-state Obama landslide: nominating Rick Perry. It may be hard to remember, but when Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race in 2011, it looked like the nomination was his for the taking and the Perry momentum was overwhelming. In fact, a year prior to Election Day 2012 the Perry juggernaut was so strong that even the Great and Powerful Oz (aka Nate Silver) wrote a New York Times Sunday magazine piece forecasting a 55 percent chance that Perry would beat Obama in the general election.

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What stopped Perry, and saved the Republican Party from nominating a hopeless, hapless candidate?   Those much reviled debates, where Perry blew—not one, not two—but three debate appearances. And what finally did Perry in? One of those much maligned “media sponsored” debates, where CNBC journalist John Harwood called Perry out for being unable to name the three federal agencies he proposed to abolish. It took multiple debates to expose Perry’s weakness, and sharp questioning by a savvy reporter to make that weakness fatal. Absent those, the GOP might have nominated an atrocious candidate and left the dissection work to President Obama in the fall. Rather than trying to cut back the number of debates and wrest control of them from media types, the Republican Party should send Harwood and CNBC a bouquet and beg them to hold 20 more debates in 2016 to weed out any empty suit candidates.

The debates also provided legitimacy for Mitt Romney’s ultimate triumph over more base-favored candidates like Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain. Yes, party insiders hated the fact that the numerous GOP primary debates gave Gingrich, Bachmann, and Cain “oxygen” in the race and propelled each to prominence at various points. But as the debates ground on, they became venues in which Romney—showing skill and aggressiveness as a candidate—took down these opponents and triumphed over them on the strength of his persuasive power and personal engagement. For example, in an NBC-sponsored debate in Tampa, Romney decimated Gingrich on his congressional record and post-congressional career—and substantially strengthened his bid for the nomination.

While I am certain that Romney would have preferred to have been spared this sparring, the alternative—Romney rolling over lesser candidates by dint of bigger donors, paid ads, and a well-financed campaign—would have given him less stature and legitimacy as the nominee of the entire Republican Party. A coronation may be more fun for a would-be ruler than having to triumph at a jousting tournament, but the latter leaves much less doubt over who is the true king. Romney was helped by winning the nomination on the field of debate battle, and not in the backrooms where he was busy chatting about the 47 percent.

It was also those nasty, unpleasant, and numerous debates in the winter of 2011 and 2012 that enabled Romney to have his best moment of the 2012 campaign: His victory over President Obama in Denver in the first general election debate. Yes, some of the reason why Romney bested Obama that night had to do with Obama’s weak performance, and some of the credit must go to the excellent Romney preparation plan led by Beth Myers and her team. But there can be no doubt—none—that having to engage in more than 20 primary debates during the campaign made Romney a better, sharper, more experienced debater when his chance came to face Obama in October—and the absence of primary debates for the president made him rustier and less sharp.

This is why, of the six incumbent presidents who have engaged in general election debates, five have lost to their challengers in their first debate—including the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan in 1984.  (Bill Clinton besting Bob Dole in 1996 is the lone exception.) Obama’s Denver debacle was not a fluke—it was part of a well-established pattern for incumbent presidents. And while many factors account for this trend, the fact that challengers must run a gauntlet of primary debates to make it to the final contest, while incumbents are spared this ordeal, obviously plays a role.

It is ironic that the party that believes in challenging, frequent, and multiple tests for our children in school as a condition of promotion now thinks that their putative leader should be spared a rigorous examination as part of their selection process. So please, GOP, nominate an untested candidate who has not been subjected to difficult debates at the hands of hard questioners and a grueling schedule. (Heck, Rick Perry wants another crack at it.) That’s definitely the path to victory in 2016.

Ron Klain was general counsel for the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee in 2000 and served as counsel to Democrats in the Florida Legislature during redistricting litigation in the 2001-02 cycle.