How Do You Debate With A Huge Field Of GOP Presidential Candidates?

May 15, 2015 at 8:23 AM ET

UPDATE: Fox News says it will limit the number of candidates in the first Republican primary presidential debate in August to 10. The candidates with the highest poll numbers will get invitations. 

As the Republican presidential field begins to take shape, the question of how to handle primary debates has already come to the forefront: If there are roughly 20 possible GOP candidates, can you put them all on stage at the same time?

The answer is probably not. Such a large number of debaters would likely render the exercise pointless. Presidential candidates would have very little time to speak, forcing them to revert back to their primal instincts. The moderator would be torn apart. Voters would be entertained, but they’d receive even less substance than usual.

The first primary debate occurred in 1948, between two politicians, Republicans Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey. According to research compiled by William Benoit, an expert on political communication, over time, the number of candidates clambering for a spot on the stage steadily grew. By the 1984 cycle, when Democrats were trying to dethrone Ronald Reagan, eight candidates took part in the debate. There were more candidates because it took some time for an obvious frontrunner to present himself.

In 2004, when Democrats were trying to field a candidate to take on George W. Bush, 10 of them went head to head in an early debate under those big stage lights, like a Friday night high-school football game in Texas. During the next cycle, in 2008, Republicans set out 10 lecterns for their own contest of wits. But those two years were unsual. During presidential primaries, there have never been more than 10 candidates debating on stage at once.

“A debate is free publicity,” Benoit says. “When no one has a lock on the nomination, more people will participate. It’s a chance to look equal to frontrunners, and maybe overtake them.”