September 27, 2015
The next GOP debate is a month away. At this stage before the previous two contests, candidates were positioning themselves for the next round, particularly those on the line between main event and undercard.
Now, many campaigns don’t know what to expect. You see, the criteria for Debate #3 is still undetermined. We have heard a couple of things:
- Probably no junior debate
- They would prefer fewer main debate contestants
If the RNC, CNBC and NBC Political Director Chuck Todd (who’s steering things) follow the above two items, the debate field will get sliced, perhaps almost in half. Todd has indicated he sees 5% either nationally, in Iowa or New Hampshire as a floor.
It’s becoming evident the RNC would like to narrow the field. Neither the national committee, nor whatever you would consider the GOP establishment is on board with a Trump nomination. They probably would like to avoid Dr. Carson as well.
So how and where do you draw the line? Donald Trump and Ben Carson are consistently well ahead of anyone else in polls, so they obviously get to participate. Besides, CNBC wants their chance at record ratings.
Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio are now fairly consistently in the next polling tier. They are also considered the two strongest debaters in the field. Establishment Republicans aren’t ready to annoit Carly just yet, but if they were forced to choose someone never elected to office, she’s the most easily digested option.
Meanwhile, there are few people who belong to any vestige of the establishment who wouldn’t happily choose Rubio if they had to pick between him or whatever fate otherwise provides.
So far this is a strong debate group consisting of the four highest polling candidates since the last debate. However, it only includes one elected official, and there’s no way the line is here. Let’s proceed.
Jeb Bush is making the next debate. He may not register in double-digits that frequently, may be further behind in Iowa and New Hampshire than he is nationally, but he also has $100 million in PAC money, organization on the ground in early states, and the whole Bush 41 and 43 thing.
That does really remind you how badly his campaign is going though. How is that guy 5th? Conversely, listen to Jeb and George Pataki back-to-back and you’ll wonder if the correct governor who left office in 2006 is being included.
Love Ted Cruz or hate him, think the Boehner resignation is vindication or evidence vandals are sacking the Capitol, it’s hard to see a third debate without The Donald’s favorite competitor.
If a 5% floor is used, Cruz has consistently measured at or above that number in national and both Iowa and New Hampshire polls. You can’t reasonably use polling results to exclude him.
Furthermore, as much as some establishment elements detest him, others, the sort who read the National Review or Weekly Standard, do not. He might not be their first choice, but they see a huge difference between Ted and Trump.
On the chance that Rubio is deemed too squishy for 2016, and Carly too risky, better Cruz than Trump for sure. If you ask around today at least, many would prefer him to Carson too. Not to mention the epic response if Cruz were excluded. For all these reasons, he’s safe for quite a while.
The first six contestants are easy. They are by most standards the six with the best poll numbers. They have somewhat unique constituencies. They either have a lot of momentum, a lot of funding, or both.
Now it gets tricky. The RNC/CNBC/Todd team can’t just pick whoever they want, but they can decide who they would prefer and game the requirements accordingly.
Assuming there is some consensus on who should participate (not guaranteed), they would need defensible rules that seem reasonable, but would still favor the chosen candidates.
Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee are two candidates who don’t currently have a path, don’t have establishment backing, but do take up some time in each debate. They present an interesting puzzle for the rule makers.
On the one hand, their poll numbers are about the same as John Kasich and Chris Christie. Does one group deserve to debate, while the other does not?
We’ll assume for now that all undercard participants from last time are SOL. None are showing a pulse nationally or in New Hampshire. Bobby Jindal recently pulled a 4% result in Iowa, but the deck appears stacked against him.
With Scott Walker safely out of the way, if Huckabee, Paul, Kasich and Christie are all included, the stage has 10 podiums, same as Round 1, one fewer than Round 2.
If none are included, you have the Super Six mentioned above. While it would probably make for a solid debate, 9 of the remaining 15 candidates would find themselves left out. That’s probably not feasible, especially as they would wonder why they couldn’t even participate in a JV debate.
So my bet is they are shooting for 8 debaters, with a chance a 9th one slips in depending on how the polls behave. This provides the best possible outcome.
First, they do begin to cut the amount of debate participants in the main event, but not so drastically that people are screaming. Leaving Carly out last time would have looked bad and she was making noticeable progress.
There is nobody in a truly similar position this time, particularly if they use state poll numbers. If 8 candidates are included, they will represent at least 90% of the total polling support, both nationally and in the individual states.
Establishment types need Kasich in the debate. With Jeb looking shaky and 4 of the top 6 being some form of outsider, another option is necessary. Conveniently, he’s running well ahead of his average national numbers in New Hampshire and will stay above a 5% threshold. He even scored 6% in the new NBC national survey.
Kasich gets podium #7. Who gets the eighth? I think they would like to give it to Christie. He fulfills a number of requirements. One, he’s a pretty solid debater who says somewhat interesting things that do not offend swing voters.
Two, he’s a regular on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. Three, he has some establishment donor support and is another possible Jeb backup. This makes him exactly the person to keep around as long as possible.
The RNC gets another person on stage who looks good to swing voters. NBC gets someone who may draw ratings in the future if Trump vaporizes. Everybody wins. Also, if Christie misses out on the debate, you’d rather not hear his tirade.
This isn’t entirely a pity/tactical choice. Christie does have more of a path at this exact second than Paul or Huckabee. He was within two points of Jeb and Kasich in the most recent NH poll. His favorable ratings have trended up for the past 4 to 6 months.
Among the Jeb/Kasich/Christie group of more moderateish governors, Christie now has the best favorability numbers and could appear best positioned to draw enough support to win primaries with a smaller field.
He’s a hell of a long way from a nomination, but behind the scenes as candidates jockey for position, his campaign is pointing this out where appropriate.
In order to get Christie in, the standard needs to be fairly low, on the order of hitting 5% in a national poll, Iowa poll or New Hampshire poll. If they use an average, he may not make it.
It looks like the rules announcement is still 7-10 days away. Another New Hampshire poll or two should surface. If Christie drops back to 2 or 3%, they’ll go with the one poll between the last debate and 10/18 or so that was over 5%.
They will need to watch out, it’s possible Jindal could hit 5% in Iowa. Being too liberal with the rules could lead to another full stage. Will be interesting to see if they would rather risk 10 candidates or no Christie.
If Christie does better, you may see a requirement to average 5% nationally, in Iowa, or New Hampshire during that stretch.
Huckabee is the ninth podium and they’ll take him to get Christie. Currently, Huck sits at 4.5% in the Real Clear Politics Iowa average. He also got 6% in the most recent Iowa survey. You can’t take Christie’s last NH number without also inviting Huckabee.
If Christie starts trending upward in NH, you can use an average, which Huckabee may or may not sustain. I’d say it’s at least 50/50 he gets to participate.
Rand Paul doesn’t get to play anymore. He suffers from having a small constituency, being less interesting than the new outsiders, having low favorability ratings and no strength in either early state.
Unlike Christie and Huckabee, he hasn’t hit 5% recently. Paul has often scored at 4%, and these surveys have a margin of error of 4-5%, so in fairness, it’s difficult to argue there’s a big difference in his support.
He’s still being kicked off the island. Might not be just, fair, proper or otherwise. He’d likely have the distinction of strongest presidential candidate not to qualify for a pre-primary debate. Mike Gravel got to participate with the 2008 Democrats, eliminating Paul is comparatively ridiculous.
It’s still the logical move for the RNC, CNBC and Mr. Todd, so I would expect it to happen.