At the risk of deflating the hopes of those romantics who still cling to the idea that Marco Rubio might somehow emerge from the 37th ballot of a contested Republican nominating convention the party’s nominee, I’ve got sad news: He won’t. That said, the outgoing Florida senator may yet have one final gift to give his party as the raucous primary election season comes to a close and the general election begins. This gift came in the form of a bit of unsolicited advice as the GOP grapples with the prospect of a fractious process that will inevitably alienate a healthy portion of its members. If the GOP heads into Cleveland without anyone having won the nomination outright, Rubio suggested, all the potential nominees should submit to one, final debate.
“Most of these debates were promoted and conducted as entertainment,” Rubio told conservative talk show host Mark Levin in a wide-ranging interview this week. “Let’s see what someone’s going to say about so and so and the entire debate is judged based on who got in the best zingers, who got in the best lines, what was the most dramatic moment.”
Rubio wasn’t entirely contemptuous of the debate format, however. He told the radio and television host that it would serve the stalemated conventioneers if the RNC hosted its own debate with the remaining candidates prior to the Cleveland gathering.
If it were to occur, this would be a debate unlike any of the others to which the GOP’s expansive field of candidates submitted themselves over the course of 2015-2016. Moreover, it would be one of the most important. There will be no NFL-like overproduced packages introducing the candidates. There will be no gotcha moments, nor will there be moderators with as much interest in being news as making news. There will be no Twitter statistics or analysis of which candidate is winning the most Google searches. There will be millions of viewers watching at home, but they are irrelevant. The audience for this debate is a universe of precisely 2,472 people – all of them credentialed delegates. And all of them will be looking foremost for one quality in their nominee: electability.
It is hard to think of anything Republican voters have cared about less in this election cycle than the notion of “electability.” For seven years, the GOP electorate has been primed to believe that the notion of electability is a myth. Citing a grand total of two data points (the presidential race in 2008 and 2012) and ignoring the fact that Barack Obama was on the ballot on both occasions, a cast of political entertainers have determined that “electability” is not a quality ascertained by favorability ratings, appeal to key demographics, and past electoral success. Instead, it is a “patronizing” and “disingenuous” concept cooked up by the “establishment” to fool the conservative voters into nominating moderates.
Well, the “establishment,” whoever they are, lost. Republicans are now most realistically faced with the two most viable nominees, neither of which have much of a claim to being “electable.” For the most part, the convention’s delegates will not be interested in making a self-defeating statement. They will not come to Cleveland looking to stick it to the establishment; they are the establishment. For the GOP’s voters, “can win [a] general election” has ranked at or near the bottom of their priorities for months. At the convention, an audience of persuadable delegates is likely to value their nominee’s ability to appeal to the unconverted far more so than to the rank and file members of the GOP’s increasingly exclusive club.
Unfortunately, this scenario is unlikely to come to pass, even if the convention is deadlocked on the first ballot. There are probably going to be no more Republican presidential debates for one reason: Donald Trump will not abide them. He managed to survive the debate process despite turning in a series of reliably poor performances, and the prospect of facing Ted Cruz in an extended contest of wits is one the reality television star clearly wants to avoid. Still, it would be a great experiment. What’s more, it would probably be the most enlightening debate of the cycle. Up to now, the stakes at the debates have been low; ratings for the networks, and a few points in this or the other state-level contest for the candidates. At a convention debate, the party and conservatism itself would be in the balance.