First GOP Debate May Force Some Candidates to Sidelines

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First GOP Debate May Force Some Candidates to Sidelines
| published July 6, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

Normally public preference polls this early don't matter a whit: the next Presidential election for Americans is not this year; it’s more than a year away, in November 2016. Still, a scant one month from today, Republican candidates for President will stroll onto a stage in Cleveland for the first of what may be a dozen major debates. The GOP has a lot of sorting to do in a field now crowded with more than a dozen candidates, and even more waiting in the wings.

But the criteria developed by some of the television networks in conjunction with GOP debate planners may present an odd problem: CNN and Fox News have both said that they intend to use some form of composite national polling to determine which candidates get to share that stage, and the total number of contestants will not exceed ten per debate. Fox News hosts the first debate, scheduled for August 6 in Cleveland, and it has not clarified how it may have to stretch or amend those rules to allow for more than ten candidates. That means that a few folks will be iced-out of contention completely—essentially an early death sentence for lesser-known candidates, the very ones who wanted the opportunity to display their virtues to the truly undecided or non-committal Republican voters and caucus goers.

The result could spell an immediate end of the candidacies of Bobby Jindal and Carly Fiorina, two of whom may not make the cut by the day of that all-important early debate. Officially—which is to say according to the Federal Election Commission—there are 13 Republican candidates seeking the Presidency in 2016. That number could grow larger as a few on-the-fence candidates emerge over the next two to three weeks, making this GOP contest the most crowded and complex in the party’s long history.

Why not just build a bigger stage? Because Fox, CNN and other networks say that putting more than ten candidates on a single stage is a logistical and technical nightmare, especially if the intention is to keep the debate within the 90 minute time limit. Try to imagine a question on, say, nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Giving each candidate sixty seconds means a minimum of ten minutes just on that one subtopic.  So, 13 or 14 candidates greatly exceeds the networks' template, and that means that there is now an intense battle between candidates to squeeze themselves into the top or middle tier. The debate in Cleveland can be therefore seen as the first primary—a sort of media caucus in which several Republicans will get washed out to sea.   

In a traditional contest, even one with a relatively crowded field of candidates, the lowest-tier might be pushed aside anyway by the top-tier candidates and the light heavyweights through the organic process of polling and fundraising. But this GOP battle is hardly typical. Front-runners like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are only marginally considered the leaders: composite polling shows Bush, for example, pulling in only about 9-to-11% support from all GOP voters. That means that at any moment, any candidate who claims the “lead” does so at great risk, and with a tenuous hold on the title front-runner. Normally at this stage someone within the GOP would be considered the candidate-to-watch, pulling in some 25% or more of support from would-be voters (even, as was the case in 2007-2008, if that pack leader tends to change on a month-by-month basis, as it did when Fred Dalton Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee took turns in the top spot).

Bush still outpaces all other GOP candidates in raising cash (as does his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton), but his lock on polling could slip on the tiniest thread of conversation or blip in the numbers. In some polls, Bush leads Walker by a fraction of a point; in others, it is Walker who leads Bush by the tiniest number.

The second tier is so large and so flatly horizontal as make distinctions even more difficult. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, for example, leads businessman Donald Trump in some polls by only ½ of one percent; with Huckabee in third place and Trump in fourth. In other polls, Huckabee maintains a fractional third place lead over Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Ron Paul, with Trump in fifth or sixth place. Some candidates trail further back in seventh or eighth position, but the difference between them can be as little as 1% or less. Further levelling the wide playing field: significant ideological and positional overlap between candidates, sometimes with extremely similar narratives and political tracks, such as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who will be competing for the attention of many of the same Republican voters inclined toward the messages of social conservatism as Mike Huckabee, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and author Dr. Ben Carson.

With the Cleveland debate now looming as the first make-or-break contest, the battle to remain in the top ten has taken on a life of its own, spawning an intense barrage of telemarketing, email and Twitter campaigns to encourage would-be supporters to sign on to one team or another. Example: because we have signed up for media materials from almost all the major candidates, one of our Thursday Review email inboxes now routinely fills up overnight with a dozen appeals for money, support, or social media assistance to insure robust polling responses. In most cases, the Twitter and email barrages are meant to simply ratchet-up each candidate’s social media presence and heighten their media buzz.

For candidates like Fiorina, Jindal, New York’s George Pataki and Ohio’s John Kasich, the very future of their fledgling campaigns may depend on being able to appear on that crowded stage. This is where a few political analysts say there is method to what may seem like heat-induced summer madness: Trump’s often unfiltered and politically-incorrect outbursts on immigration, and Chris Christie’s seemingly out-of-character discussion about same sex marriage and the recent SCOTUS rulings. Both may seem strategically risky, yet both moves have generated enough discussion and attention to channel marginal polling gains and favorable upticks among GOP poll respondents. And there is always a certain segment of the GOP mainstream which regards an attack by the “liberal media” as validation and vindication—if reporters are pounding Trump or Perry, then that’s a good sign that someone is speaking truth to the face of the Fourth Estate.

This creates a dangerous paradox for some Republican candidates: in order to gain traction enough to make the cut in the first debates on CNN and Fox, a candidate must stand apart from the pack, and that means taking risks through provocative statements and high profile challenges to media orthodoxy. It also may mean running the risk of saying things out loud which will almost certainly be hurled back in a general election; Democratic strategists will watch the words of GOP candidates very closely. One political analyst we spoke to via email said that July and August will see a reversal of the usual early campaign and pre-debate canons.

“Instead of keeping one’s head down and playing it safe going into the first debates—which would be the intuitive process—these candidates want to create as much noise as possible,” this person told us via email. “And that means that for the rest of July, these folks are going to start doing everything possible to draw incoming fire. If Wolf Blitzer or David Muir calls something someone said ‘controversial’ or ‘inflammatory,’ then that’s just fine with that candidate…it’ll land [the candidate] a spot on Face the Nation or on Meet the Press.”

More face time means more exposure to those potential Republican respondents in national polls, and that means a chance to actually compete on stage in Cleveland in August. High risk equals high reward.

Other analysts suggest that the negative sniping may start early, another departure from what the GOP has traditionally preferred and a sharp break from Ronald Reagan’s dictum, the so-called Eleventh Commandment—thou shall not speak ill of thy fellow Republican. Bloomberg predicts that the paradox facing the crowded field will also spur another counter-intuitive phenomenon: candidates so desperate to make it into the first debate that they are willing to spend truckloads of cash this summer in national advertising, as opposed to stockpiling for the first on-the-ground battles in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The logic is painfully clear: what’s the point of sandbagging money for TV buys in DeMoines, Manchester and Columbia if we can’t even make the cut for the big TV debut in August?

And expect sour grapes and a lot of shouting and screaming when Fox News announces it final decision on the ten people to appear. Candidates on the losing end—that is, those who do not get picked for kickball—may be edged out by percentages so tiny as to cause an instant brouhaha. Suppose the difference between the 10th and the 11th place candidates is one eighth of a percentage point? The standard margin of error is generally regarded to be between 3% and 4%.

And who at Fox or CNN gets to make that phone call to New Jersey’s Chris Christie or South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham to tell them they get to stay home while ten other candidates grace the stage in Cleveland?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Chris Christie Makes 2016 Campaign Official; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 30, 2015.

Jeb Bush Kicks Off Presidential Campaign; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 15, 2015.