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800 Of You Told Us Which Candidates Fox News Should Invite To The GOP Debate

Last week, I asked readers to submit ideas for how to pick the lineup for the first Republican debate, on Thursday night. Fox News, which is hosting the event, is using a semi-mysterious polling average (this is the likely lineup); you can surely do better.

As of this morning, we’ve received about 800 suggestions. Perhaps this shows there is a thirst among Americans for new political ideas. Or perhaps this just proves that the Venn diagram of the kind of people who read FiveThirtyEight and the kind of people who have homespun ideas for presidential debate criteria is basically a shaded-in circle.

Before we present some selections, I’ll acknowledge that we got many proposals for “Hunger Games”-style fights to the death, pitches for March Madness-style brackets, some extremely long and weird ideas,1 and seven (and counting) suggestions that the full 90 minutes simply be handed over to Donald Trump to do whatever he wants.

Here are a smattering of ideas, serious and silly, with my comments in italics below some of them. We’ve also opened up the full list of submissions for all to see — if any catch your eye, tweet me the row number.

Submissions have been lightly edited for clarity.

The NFL RedZone Approach

Peter in Boulder, Colorado, writes:

Split the field into three-candidate groups, and have multiple simultaneous debates with all the candidates involved. The pro is that three candidates can have (and be forced to have) a meaningful debate and discussion, while large groups are just a contest for the best sound bite and are informationally nearly useless. Also of course, all the candidates have a chance to be heard. Minuses are trying to watch simultaneous debates and also who makes the groupings. Luckily, we have established ways to address these. Live-stream all the debates on the net and multiple channels, put all the debates on YouTube for later review, and something like the NFL RedZone channel for real-time highlights between the debates. For groupings, we’ve used seeding systems successfully for sports like soccer and basketball tournaments for years.


Claiborne in Alexandria, Virginia, writes:

Height. Objective, yet random.

Sure, height. Why not.

An Actually Great — And Perhaps Winning — Suggestion

Kate from Boston writes:

I would host two segments of a debate and invite all 17 candidates. Candidates would be randomly drawn into one of the two segments, with one segment having eight participants and the other hour having nine. The drawing would occur immediately before the debate, so no one would know who they were debating against until just before they start.

This is emerging as my favorite. It’s simple, it’s equitable, and it still retains a whiff of mystery and madness.

Who Is Already A Millionaire?

Andy from Springfield, Virginia, writes:

All of the candidates are invited to the first round, but the debate proceeds in four rounds of 20-30 minutes. In the first round, candidates must pay $1 million to participate and will likely only receive one question. For the second round, candidates will submit secret ballots with dollar amounts. The highest half of the candidates will proceed and pay that amount, getting maybe two questions. Same thing for the third round, getting more into an actual debate. For the fourth round, only two candidates will advance and must bid openly against each other. The two winners are designated “Serious Candidates” and take part in a very real discussion of the issues. For the proceeds, one-third is donated to the GOP nominee, and the other two-thirds are paid directly to a charity picked by the two Serious Candidates. We already know it’s (mostly) about money; just make it obvious.

This would make my skin crawl, but I’d watch it!

The Consensus Flights Plan

Warren from New York City writes:

For the 1st Debate have two co-equal “flights” of 8 on consecutive weeks. Make sure that #1 and #2 seeds are not in the same flight. Coin toss for which flight goes first.

Formula for seeding:

  • 60% — Average un-rounded ranking in previous 5 non-partisan (pollster is unaffiliated) polls
  • 20% — Average favorable +/- for previous 5 non-partisan (pollster is unaffiliated) polls
  • 20% — Average ranking as “2nd Choice” candidate for previous 5 non-partisan (pollster is unaffiliated) polls


The concept is similar to a playoff system in which top seeds do not face off against each other in the first round. The idea is to create rooting interest for each debate, build anticipation for the next debate, allow for inclusiveness, and give candidates more time to present their views.

The second debate would have just 8 participants (or fewer, should many candidates drop out prior to the event) based entirely on the above (60/20/20) criteria.

Why use 60/20/20?

This system rewards candidates who are liked by the Republican electorate, as a whole, rather than by just one group, and, furthermore, rewards candidates perceived as consensus candidates, even though they may not be first choices of poll respondents. Naturally, these criteria penalize candidates who are able to attract a specific bloc of voters but are neither well liked nor considered as viable second choices by primary voters who support other candidates.

Polls + Finance

Mark from Philadelphia writes:

Use popularity polls in states and assign electoral points based on average percent of vote received. Then use a multiplier to control for campaign financing. Multiplier rewards popular candidates with less money and penalizes candidates with money getting more coverage. There will be a 3-tier spending calculation:

Tier 1 — All candidates having one standard deviation over the mean of funds raised. Receive a .7 multiplier.
Tier 2 — All candidates falling between one standard deviation plus and minus the mean of the funds raised. Receive a .8 multiplier
Tier 3 — All candidates having one standard deviation under the mean of funds raised. Receive a .9 multiplier.

Candidate X receives an average of 15% of Ohio’s vote; they receive 2.7 points.
In total, Candidate X receives 86.08 points when each state is included. Candidate X is in tier 2 of financing so they receive a .8 multiplier — candidate would score 68.864. The candidates with the 8 highest totals will be included in debate. In case of a tie, the person with the highest national popularity vote wins.

Pros: Better reflects actual election. Controls for candidates receiving large donations that can “buy time.”

Cons: Can be viewed as anti-free-speech since it limits campaign spending.

This only slightly makes sense, but I was bewitched by the math. Just let it wash over you.

Walt’s Idea

Walt from the FiveThirtyEight offices writes:

It’s true.2

Net Favorability

Brian in East Lansing, Michigan, writes:

Use net favorability among party members.

This prevents the spoiler effect (similar candidates splitting “choose one” polling) and removes the advantage of name recognition. While it may select candidates only known by supporters, the debate’s exposure will fix the problem. By only looking at party member opinion you remove the problem of increased negative opinion of the most likely opposition candidate.

The Controlled Free-For-All

Mat from Melrose, Massachusetts, writes:

The debate would be nearly a free-for-all. They would be assigned a podium by a random, name-drawn-out-of-a-hat method.

First 20 minutes: one-by-one, left to right, one-minute opening remarks.

Next 15 minutes: The moderator would name a broad topic (say: economic and tax policy) and the candidates would be free to jump in — urged to stick to THAT topic — they can talk over each other, whatever — free-for-all.

Next 15 minutes: The moderator would name another broad topic (say: foreign policy) — same free-for-all.

Next 15 minutes: The moderator would name a final broad topic (say: social policy) — same free-for-all.

Next 5 minutes: the raise-your-hand section. The candidates would be instructed to be silent — any candidate who speaks out loud during this ten minutes LOSES their one-minute final statement as a penalty to ensure silence. And the moderator would lightning-round rapid-fire simple yes/no questions, urging people to raise their hand for a “yes” or keep their hand down for a “no.”
Do you believe that humans contribute to climate change?
Do you believe the Bible is literally, word-for-word true?
Do you believe in evolution?
Do you believe in ANY regulation of ANY kind whatsoever on gun purchasing or ownership?
Do you support the death penalty?
Do you believe that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest?
Do you believe that immigration to America has been a net-positive for our country?
Things like that.

Final 20 minutes: one-by-one, left to right, one-minute closing remarks.

This format: ensures that each candidate gets a minute at the beginning and end to introduce themselves and summarize their case; they get to question each other in real time and illustrate their own strengths; and they get held to yes/no account on key issues. It’s the best way for all 17 candidates in a tight 90 minutes to make their case and show themselves off to the voters.

Thanks again to everyone for submitting. Again, the full list is here, and be sure to join us on the site Thursday evening for a debate live-blog.


  1. Gabriel from Three Rivers, New Jersey, wrote:

    The seventeen candidates would be divided into four divisions loosely based off of your “Five-Ring Circus” graphic. The four divisions would be named “Moderate” (made of Bush, Pataki, Christie, and Kasich), “Tea Party” (Trump, Carson, Walker, and Paul), “Christian Conservative” (Perry, Santorum, Cruz, Huckabee), and “Establishment” (Rubio, Jindal, Fiorina, Graham, and Gilmore).

    Each group would compete in separate games of Wheel of Fortune, hosted by Pat Sajak (who happens to be a Republican). Each phrase would be related to the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, American symbols, or Ronald Reagan. Instead of cash, the candidates could be awarded “Patriot Points.”

    The top two candidates in each group who received the most Patriot Points would face off in a pay-per-view boxing match. All four matches would be judged by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin. The champions of the four boxing matches would be the four candidates to advance to the debate. In addition, the profits from the fights would be split into four and awarded to the candidates via super PAC funds.

    It is important for each wing of the GOP to be represented in the debate, which is why it is necessary to divide the candidates into the four divisions. The Wheel of Fortune game will show off the colorful personalities of the candidates, making them more relatable to the American people, who also happen to love boxing matches.

    Obviously, this selection process will create some distractions in the media who may deem it as silly. Furthermore, a candidate may be injured as a result of the boxing matches. However, this could be prevented by wearing extra sparring protection or receiving boxing lessons from Floyd Mayweather.

  2. Step 1: break into Disney World
    Step 2: steal animatronic Ronald Reagan
    Step 3: animatronic Ronald Reagan is now the debate moderator
    Step 4: invite literally everyone
    Step 5: ??????
    Step 6: ratings that make the Super Bowl look like “Mulaney.”

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.