We're almost certainly going to have more than a dozen Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 race. As The New York Times helpfully points out, six are already in (Carson, Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, Paul, Rubio) and seven more are all but certainly running (Bush, Christie, Graham, Jindal, Perry, Santorum, Walker). There are plenty more maybes, too — both serious (Kasich) and clowns (Trump).
This leaves GOP planners with a big and pressing question: How do you stage a debate when you can't even fit the participants on a single stage?
It's an unprecedented problem. There's never been a primary debate — in either party — with more than 10 candidates. And it's even more disconcerting to Republicans because they made a strong effort to limit the number of debates so it didn't turn into a circus like it did four years ago... when there were a mere nine candidates.
Fox News, which hosts the first debate on August 6, announced that it will limit participation to the top 10 contenders based on an average of the last five national polls. Maybe that sounds good on the surface... except that formula threatens to leave out a couple of sitting governors, a U.S. senator, and the only woman running.
CNN, which hosts the second debate on September 16, will literally divide the candidates into two tiers. That could lead to some interesting exchanges, as the lower-tier candidates try to get attention with less airtime.
Other proposed formulas, which exclude candidates by the amount of money raised or the number of staffers hired, also have their problems. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the potential candidates who could be left off the stage, has even proposed two back-to-back debates with randomly selected participants.
All of this worrying and rule-making is intended to prevent the GOP presidential debates from becoming a political version of a reality show. But when you think about it, what's wrong with that?
Imagine if the debates were like American Idol, with candidates "performing" their answers to questions before a panel of "judges" — and ultimately the votes of television viewers across the country. At the end of each round, the poorest performing candidates would be "voted off" and wouldn't move to the next round.
Viewership of the debates would surge as Americans discussed with their friends and colleagues what happened on the "show" the previous night. And as more viewers voted to keep their favorite candidates around, more people would have a vested interest in the ultimate winner.
Just as the winners of American Idol often go on to became famous singers who sell out their concerts and sell many albums, the winner of the GOP presidential debate would have a ready-made constituency for the general election.
Some might think it's unseemly to treat a presidential campaign like a game show. But our politics have been evolving this way for more than 200 years. Our earliest presidents thought it unseemly to even campaign at all. They never left their homes.
The Republican Party has its strongest field of candidates in years. There is no fair way to pick those who would be allowed on the debate stage. Even with as few as 10 candidates, the debates will seem like a game show.
Why not just embrace that? A game show format might lead to the strongest general election candidate Republicans have had in years, too.