MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Virtually every Republican leader agrees that the 20 GOP debates in the last presidential primary season damaged Mitt Romney — remember “self-deportation”? – and briefly made front-runners out of eventual flameouts like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.
Party leaders vowed never to let it happen again. On Thursday, they took action, moving at a Republican National Committee meeting here to dramatically cut the number of GOP primary debates — possibly in half.
A group of 13 RNC members, essentially operating under the control of party Chairman Reince Priebus, will choose the timing, location and media partners of the 2015-2016 Republican primary debates. They will insist that conservative panelists join moderators from the mainstream media.
To make it stick, the plan would crack down on candidates who participate in debates that aren’t sanctioned by the party — by barring them from ones that are.
The biggest surprise about the overhaul is how little resistance it met. The new regime will benefit top-tier candidates who don’t need the free media exposure, as well as broadcast networks that spend big money to produce debates and don’t want to put on more than a few of them. The losers are underdog candidates and cable channels, which draw bigger-than-usual audiences on debate nights. It will also mean fewer sponsorship opportunities for non-TV media properties.
The likely result of Thursday’s move: About half as many debates as in 2012 and, potentially, friendlier questions.