NASHUA — After the 2012 election was over, the Republican National Committee vowed to do so something about the large number of presidential primary debates — 20 in total — that highlighted the differences among their candidates and ultimately hurt the GOP nominee.
The RNC chairman called the frequent debates “an embarrassment and ridiculous” and set up a task force to figure out a solution: This cycle, there are only nine sanctioned debates, with the first one in August.
Instead, in 2016, so-called “cattle-call” events, have replaced debates in their ubiquity. These events typically feature a dozen or more Republican White House hopefuls, speaking one after another somewhere in a politically relevant part of the country. The candidates, announced and considering, seek to capture the crowd and become the party’s new political favor in 30 minutes or less.
“Some campaigns think they are actually moving the needle with voters by attending these events, but most of the people in the room have made up their minds,” said John Weaver, who served as the chief strategist for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential campaign. “State parties have to do whatever they can to raise money. The lack of protocol on what to do on the front end of the primary season without debates forces these cattle calls to happen and candidates, particularly those down in the pack, are going to accept an invitation every time.”
Starting with the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines in late January, there has been some kind of large forum nearly every weekend. Last weekend, candidates went to Greenville, S.C. for another Freedom Summit. This weekend they will be in Des Moines again for the Lincoln Day Dinner. The weekend after that? Oklahoma City for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Some of these events are run by state political parties, like the one in Nashua last month by the New Hampshire Republican Party and Saturday’s dinner in Iowa. Others are run by outside groups like Citizens United, the Conservative Political Action Conference, or the National Rifle Association’s conference in Nashville. Mega-political donor Sheldon Adelson summoned candidates to a Republican Jewish Coalition confab at his Las Vegas hotel. The Koch brothers held a retreat where candidates could introduce themselves to their network at a swanky Palm Springs, Calif., hotel. Florida Governor Rick Scott is getting in on the action: Seven candidates have committed to attend his event in Orlando next month.
Moving away from debates is great for the groups hosting these forums because they can raise money or prestige. But it might not be as good for the candidates, whose speeches are relegated to C-SPAN instead of Fox News. It might not be great either for the Republican voter, who hears speeches instead of candidate interaction.
The format of these events is generally the same. Candidates come on some stage and give a 15- to 20-minute audition pitch on why the audience of GOP activists should get their consideration. Given the large field — nearly 20 Republican hopefuls — it goes on like this usually for an entire day, sometimes two days, depending on the number of candidates.
Weaver said the only candidate that has really benefitted from these forums is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who vaulted himself into the top-tier because of his speech at the first cattle call in Iowa.
“That was a unique moment because people were looking for a conservative alternative to Bush, who jump-started the race,” Weaver said.
It might be all too fitting that the king of cattle calls is Iowa, an agricultural state. Their caucuses kick-start the presidential primary season, and the Hawkeye State is scheduled to have seven forum events, including the Iowa Straw Poll in August. By contrast, New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary only had two events like this in the last two years.
When asked if the impact of so many cattle-call forums were akin to 2012’s plethora of debates, an RNC spokesman said the committee doens’t have an issue with it.
“The RNC has streamlined the debate process and as long as candidates adhere to the rules, we encourage them to actively engage with voters and grassroots supporters across the country,” said RNC spokesman Raffi Williams.
So who is watching and paying attention to these day-long affairs? A select group, according to New Hampshire Republican strategist Tom Rath, who was a top advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.
“These events can be good to stir up party activists, but the events themselves are sort of this alternative universe of the most politically engaged, the candidates and the press,” Rath said. “And you have to wonder if this is helping any voter size up who should be president.”