AUSTIN -- With all the fanfare of a major sporting event, the 2012 election GOP primary debates introduced Americans to the Republicans hoping to win the party's nomination, and ultimately the White House.
Now the 2016 debates have become leverage to show Republicans' disapproval of a pair of special projects featuring former Secretary of State and rumored 2016 Democratic party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. Republicans have alleged that by airing features on a potential presidential candidate during an election season, both CNN and NBC give an unfair advantage to Democrats.
Both of the respective programs are being produced independently of the networks' news divisions. Nonetheless, Republican delegates voted Friday to ban both network from hosting any Republican primary debates until they cancel or postpone the projects featuring Clinton.
"I would just say that entities like NBC and CNN that are moving forward with four-part miniseries about Hillary Clinton are not going to take part in our debates," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus explained on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. "Look, if you’re not going to have 23 debates, these guys are making it a lot easier for us to pare that down to a reasonable number in front of people and entities that actually give a darn about the future of the Republican party."
"The project is in the very early stages of development, months from completion with most of the reporting and the interviewing still to be done," CNN responded in a statement Friday. "Therefore, speculation about the final program is just that. We encouraged all interested parties to wait until the program premieres before judgments are made about it. Unfortunately, the RNC was not willing to do that."
"We voted with the rest of the RNC, which ended up voting unanimously, 168 to zero, to not allow CNN and NBC to hold debates," said Republican Party of Texas Chair Steve Munisteri, who participated in Friday's vote. "We can enforce that by taking delegates away from presidential candidates, which we will. So I think the end result is neither NBC nor CNN will be hosting debates during the 2016 presidential primary as a result of what we see as biases on their part."
"Whoever hosts, it doesn't matter," suggested St. Edward's University Political Science Professor Brian Smith. "We saw in 2012 it move around from channel to channel, so I don't think that makes much of a difference."
Political parties choosing to approve or reject debates on networks based on perceived or actual partisan bias is not exactly new. Smith points out in 2007, Democrats had agreed to a primary debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, "But then when they found Fox News was doing it, one by one the Democrats skipped out."
The GOP debates between 2011 and 2012 averaged anywhere from three to seven million viewers each. The debates regularly produced headlines, and in the case of Rick Perry, provided one of the most damaging moments of his presidential campaign. After a total of 27 debates in the runup to the 2012 primary, many suggested the more isn't the merrier.
"Having so many debates, they do start losing their impact. Then candidates realize, 'I have a lot more to lose personally by making a big mistake than actually performing well,'" said Smith. On Sunday, Priebus appeared to share a similar opinion.
"I’m trying to get a hold of a primary process and a debate debacle that, as you know, I’ve called a traveling circus," Priebus told Stephanopoulos. "The fact of the matter is I’ve got to protect this party and our nominees. We don’t want a whole lot of 23 debate rounds like we’ve had before."
Either way, there will no doubt be plenty watching.