The official word will come tonight at 7 p.m. ET on Lou Dobbs’s show on Fox Business. To refresh your memory:
To qualify for the prime-time debate, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent national polls through Nov. 4, according to the criteria the network released Tuesday. Candidates below the 2.5 percent average in the polls, but hitting at least 1 percent in one of the four most recent national polls through Nov. 4, will be invited to participate in the earlier debate.
This is a thousand shades of stupid, especially after the pollsters missed Matt Bevin’s win in Kentucky this week by a good 13 points. For starters, if you’re not going to specify which national polls you’re using in advance, then you’re open to the charge that you’ve deliberately ignored polls that are more or less favorable to a particular candidate. For instance, according to RCP’s national tracker, the four most recent national polls are Fox News, Quinnipiac, NBC/WSJ, and IBD/TIPP. The fifth most recent poll is the NYT/CBS survey. Will Fox Business ignore the less well-known IBD poll and use the NYT poll instead, or will it ignore the paper of record and a major broadcast network in favor of IBD? Or will it ignore RCP’s tracker entirely and use the Huffington Post’s tracker instead? The four most recent national polls there are Ipsos/Reuters, Fox News, Quinnipiac, and Morning Consult. Why not those polls instead of the ones tracked by RCP?
This isn’t a cosmetic difference. If you use RCP’s polls, Chris Christie has scored 2, 3, 3, and 1 points in the four most recent polls — an average of 2.25 percent, which means he would miss the cut-off for the main debate next week. If you use HuffPo’s polls, Christie scores 3, 2, 3, and 4 points for an average of three percent, good enough to qualify. If you use RCP’s polls, either Bobby Jindal or Lindsey Graham will miss the undercard debate. Both have zero percent in all recent polls except one: Jindal notched two percent in the IBD poll while Graham notched two percent in NYT/CBS. Depending upon which of those polls Fox Business uses as its fourth poll, one or the other of them will be excluded from the event entirely. Or maybe Fox Business will decide to toss out the WSJ/NBC poll since that one didn’t even include Jindal or Graham in the questioning; in that case, if both the IBD and NYT/CBS polls count then both would qualify for the debate. Or maybe Fox Business will use HuffPo’s polls instead of RCP’s. Jindal and Graham both hit one percent in the latest Ipsos/Reuters poll so both would be in. See how arbitrary this is? Now recall how little credibility the numbers have in the first place given Bevin’s win and ask yourself why polls are being used to shape debate participation in the first place.
What makes this extra stupid is that these are all national polls and don’t account for momentum where it counts, in the early states where the first votes will be taken. Bobby Jindal’s at six percent in PPP’s new poll of Iowa, the same as Mike Huckabee and actually a point ahead of Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush. Chris Christie’s at eight percent in the latest poll of New Hampshire, ahead of Fiorina, Bush, and Ted Cruz, and has seen his favorables rise by double digits in at least one survey. He’s coming off of a solid debate performance and has had a short speech he made on drug addiction viewed by several million people online over the last week. Any sane debate format would take care to include candidates on the main stage when there’s evidence that voters in key states are showing new interest on them, on the theory that early-state voters are paying closer attention to the race right now and might be seeing promise that national Republicans have yet to detect. Christie and Jindal might be longshots but I’d give them both (slightly) better shots at winning a state or two at this point than I’d give the (slightly) higher-polling Mike Huckabee or Rand Paul. And yet it’s Huckabee and Paul who are debate shoo-ins while Christie and Jindal are on the bubble.
And for cripes sake, if you’re going to insist on booting the lower-polling candidates into an undercard debate, at least have the basic common sense to put more candidates in that one than in the main event. The more second-tier candidates participate in the undercard, the greater the incentive is to watch. By limiting the debate to marginalia like Graham and Pataki, you’re basically saying that you’re holding the event as a desultory show of “fairness” rather than as an important forum that undecideds should strongly consider viewing. Sheesh.