Republican presidential candidates will meet Sunday night to chart changes they want to the presidential debates amid mounting criticism of what many of the campaigns say has been an unwieldy and unfair process.
The meeting follows the Republican National Committee’s decision on Friday to suspend its debate partnership with NBC News, in response to claims that CNBC moderators mistreated its candidates at Wednesday night’s forum. Sunday’s gathering has being described by sources on campaigns and at the RNC as an opportunity to produce reforms that the committee could then present to networks still scheduled to host debates.
They are attempting to wrestle command from the Republican National Committee and media hosts.
Representatives from more than a dozen campaigns met behind closed doors for nearly two hours Sunday night in suburban Washington, a meeting that was not expected to yield many results given the competing interests of several candidates. Yet they emerged having agreed to several changes to be outlined in a letter to debate hosts in the coming days.
They include largely bypassing the RNC in coordinating with network hosts, mandatory opening and closing statements, an equal number of questions for the candidates, and pre-approval of on-screen graphics, according to Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett, who hosted the meeting.
“The amazing part for me was how friendly the meeting was,” Bennett said, noting the private gathering was held in a private room marked “family meeting.” ”Everybody was cordial. We all agreed we need to have these meetings more regularly.”
GOP chairman Reince Priebus decided to suspend a partnership with NBC News and its properties on a debate set for February, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the frustrated campaigns.
“We need to mature in the way that we do these debates if they’re going to be useful to the American people,” Carson told ABC’s “This Week.”
While the campaigns agreed to the changes in principle Sunday night, the media companies that host the debates are under no obligation to adopt them. Bennett suggested that campaigns could boycott debates to get their way.
“The only leverage we have is to not come,” he said.
The pushback comes despite a high-profile effort by the Republican National Committee to improve the debate process going into the 2016 election season. The party said the 2012 debate schedule promoted too much fighting among candidates, so for 2016, the RNC dramatically reduced the number of debates for this election and played a leading role in coordinating network hosts and even moderators, in some cases.
Three debates remain before the first nomination contest, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1; the next one is scheduled for Nov. 10 in Milwaukee. The RNC has sanctioned five debates after the caucuses.
“What it really comes down to is the candidates want to have more control of the ability to negotiate with the networks,” Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said after the meeting.
While organizers of the meeting were not including the RNC, the party has been in regular communication with campaigns about their concerns.
Shortly before the meeting, the RNC appointed Sean Cairncross, the committee’s chief operating officer, to take the lead in negotiating with the networks. It’s unclear, however, what role he’ll play should the campaigns get their way.
Some candidates are trying to use the debate discord to their advantage — none more than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
CNBC, with its pro-business slant, wasn’t expected to be a controversial choice. But the forum on Wednesday proved to be problematic from the get-go. The campaigns complained that the questions veered away from economic policy and into personal matters. They also were aggrieved over the distribution of time between the candidates. One campaign official said an RNC aide had claimed to have an algorithm to ensure equity of time. “Which is ridiculous,” said the official. “You don’t need an algorithm. You need a stopwatch.”
Priebus got out in front of the criticism on Wednesday night as the candidates cleared the debate stage, calling out CNBC’s moderators for doing “a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters.” A top Republican official told The Huffington Post that Priebus called many campaigns — though not all — to ensure that he had their support in suspending the next debate with NBC. And when he met no pushback, he sent Friday’s letter to NBC News chairman Andy Lack, saying that CNBC conducted the debate “in bad faith.”
The RNC’s move to penalize NBC puts the networks hosting the six remaining Republican debates — ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and Fox Business — in a tricky position.
The TV networks can continue debate preparations as planned, but run the risk of looking weak in not pushing back against a political party abruptly deciding fellow broadcasters aren’t fit to host a debate. Even competitive news organizations, at times, have acted collectively after one is sidelined over claims of unfair coverage. For instance, network bureau chiefs banded together in 2009 to defend Fox News as the White House attempted to freeze out the network. The following year, the White House Correspondents Association gave Fox News a front-row seat in the briefing room.
So far, the networks haven’t rushed to show solidarity. Representatives from CNN, CBS News, and ABC News declined to comment. A Fox News representative did not immediately respond.
Beyond competition, rival networks may be hesitant to stand up for CNBC, given how poorly the debate was conducted. Even within 30 Rock, the event was viewed as everything from a missed opportunity to challenge candidates on substantive economic issues to an outright disaster. There’s now frustration within NBC over being penalized for CNBC’s errors, according to network sources, especially when many believe NBC’s political team would’ve done a better job conducting the debate if given editorial control.
NBC, officially, holds out hope that an agreement can be reached with the party and the now-suspended debate won’t be canceled.
“This is a disappointing development,” NBC said in a statement Friday. “However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”