WASHINGTON -- Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Friday that his party will have fewer debates moderated by journalists from mainstream news outlets in the 2016 primary.
"I've certainly talked about non-news figures involved in the debates, even having potentially grassroots-type debates, having Lincoln-Douglas type debates, and also including traditional news as well," Priebus told a group of reporters at an event hosted by National Review. "Giving the cable companies a shot at a debate is something that I think we can do as well."
The 2012 primary was dominated by more than 20 debates and candidate forums that started eight months out from the Iowa caucuses and lasted until late February 2012. The televised debates gave the candidates with less money than frontrunner Mitt Romney, such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, huge amounts of free publicity and allowed them to stay in the race longer into 2012 than they would have been able to without the forums.
Many Republicans were upset by the number of debates, which was fueled in part by the cable networks' ratings-driven demand, but also by the choice of questions during some of the debates. A number of conservatives believed that the journalists who moderated debates or asked questions were biased against conservatism. Gingrich, for example, made bashing the moderator an explicit part of his strategy in the South Carolina primary, with great success. And Romney was so irritated by a question from ABC's George Stephanopoulos about contraception that he later insinuated the question had been planted by Democrats.
"What happened last time was just a free for all and it just shouldn't happen again," Priebus said. "There should be a way to have a cross section of involvement from different media personalities in these debates. What I'm saying is we need to be involved in choosing what those debates look like, who the moderators would be, and how often we're going to be conducting these debates."
"The most imporotant thing is we have a reasonable amount of debates that allows our candidates to be featured, gives everyone plenty of time to make their case, but also protects our primary process, which should involve the Republican party," he said.