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Monday, October 24, 2016

By Steven Yaccino, Bloomberg News (TNS)

NEW YORK — A month from now, 10 Republican presidential candidates will walk out onto a prime-time debate stage in Cleveland and confront each other face to face for the first time. If the debate were held today, Donald Trump would be one of them. Two sitting governors, a U.S. senator, the runner-up for the 2012 GOP nomination, and the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company would all be excluded.

That’s an estimate based on qualifying criteria described by Fox News, which will host the GOP showdown in partnership with Facebook on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, using an average of five as-yet-unspecified national polls to determine the lineup. The network should be celebrating its coveted role of hosting the first debate of the Republican primary season, with the prestige and audience that it brings. But instead, the news organization may have stumbled into a political minefield.

In an unprecedentedly large field of 16 presidential contenders, at least half are statistically on the bubble of not qualifying for the debate stage, with only a month to differentiate themselves. The result is a campaign-within-a- campaign, with very different imperatives from the ones the primary process is designed to produce. Campaigns who are in danger of not making the cut may try everything possible to improve their chances over the next four weeks — taking extreme, news-making positions; dumping opposition research on opponents; inundating email inboxes; and blitzing the Sunday television circuit, late-night talk shows, conservative radio airwaves and cable news programs. Instead of spending resources on political operations in early-voting states, candidates may blow that cash on national TV ads to boost name recognition at the eleventh hour.

For candidates on the bubble, the most frustrating thing about the process may be its uncertainty and near-randomness. An analysis by the Bloomberg Politics polling team of the entry criteria released by Fox News suggests that it will be virtually impossible to know which candidates will qualify for the first debate until just days before the event, regardless of what they do in the coming weeks. And because of the varying sample sizes, margins of error, and targeted respondents featured in different national polls, the winners and losers of this new debate primary season may have little relation to their prospects of becoming the eventual nominee. Methodologically, they might as well be drawing straws.

“A microscope has not yet been invented that enables us to determine the difference between the 10th-place person and the 11th-place person,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a polling analyst for Bloomberg Politics. “That difference, literally, will be less than half of a percentage point. And maybe even less than that.”

Fox News will be averaging the five most recent national polls “conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques,” the network said in a statement in May. The polls must be published before 5 p.m. ET on Aug. 4. The 10 candidates with the highest averages will make it into the debate. That number could increase if candidates are tied.

“National polls are the traditional, time-tested yardstick by which presidential hopefuls have long been measured and remain the fairest, most objective and most straight-forward metric for gauging the viability of these candidates,” Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news for Fox, said in statement to Bloomberg. “We will use a range of quality polls that people are currently seeing out there and although all of them may not be identical, all will use methods that are accepted by the polling community. We have already made clear we won’t use partisan and online polls.”

Fox promised to give non-qualifying candidates “additional coverage and air time” that day in Cleveland, which amounts to a 90-minute forum broadcasted on the network during the afternoon — essentially a kiddie-table consolation prize.

In defense of Fox, there is no easy way to host a substantive debate for more than a dozen candidates on one stage. The network points out that there have never been more than 10 candidates in a Republican debate. To be sure, missing the first debate doesn’t necessarily spell death for a candidate’s campaign, and there’s a precedent for selecting debate participants in this way. Four years ago, the network used a similar approach to host a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina. The May 2011 debate featured only five presidential hopefuls after several others (including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Trump) decided to skip. The network did not release which polls it used, but given the complexities of the 2016 field, and the attention this process is getting, Fox is more likely to disclose that information this year.

The Republican Party has maintained it has no problem with the process. “We support and respect the decision Fox has made which will match the greatest number of candidates we have ever had on a debate stage,” party chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.

CNN, which hosts the second Republican debate in mid-September, announced its own plan to limit the debate stage to 10 candidates, averaging all national polls taken from July 16 through Sept. 10. Unlike Fox, CNN released a list of the polls that would meet its standards and requires candidates to have at least one paid campaign aide working in two of the four early voting states. CNN will also hold a second prime-time debate for candidates that don’t make it into the top 10. “CNN developed a format that will allow all of the Republican presidential candidates, who meet the eligibility criteria, an opportunity to discuss their visions for the future,” the network said in a statement.

For candidates at the front of the pack like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, none of this matters. But while lesser-known candidates like former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have described the debate thresholds as a motivating goal, other presidential hopefuls have been quick to claim the process is unfair. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum immediately called the 10-candidate cutoff “arbitrary,” reminding everyone that at this point in 2011, he barely registered in national polls but went on to win the Iowa caucuses and 10 other states. Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses were “headed for oblivion” if national polls became the debate criteria norm.

They have a point. Limiting the stage to 10 candidates doesn’t reflect a natural cutoff point in the current Republican field. As it currently stands, there’s probably a top tier of five or six candidates; from there, ranking the field gets far more difficult. “There’s no difference between John Kasich and Bobby Jindal except one’s going to be in and one is going to be out,” said Doug Usher of Purple Strategies, which conducts polling for Bloomberg Politics. “Or maybe they’re both going to be out.”

Perhaps the biggest question mark, pointed out by presidential candidates and political experts, is that using national polls to determine strength in a primary election does not accurately reflect how the parties have traditionally chosen their presidential nominees: by a series of competitions over many months for convention delegates, chosen in caucuses and primaries. That is a fluid, dynamic process, one in which early contests in states like Iowa and New Hampshire can propel unknown candidates into the national limelight.

Clemente said a candidate’s performance in early states often gets reflected in national polls. But the first GOP contest is still six months away and not every state has the same primary rules. There are some that limit their primary contests to Republicans only. There are other states that permit independents or all voters to participate. In some states, only a couple thousand people take part. In others, millions. Simply put, using national polls as a prerequisite for debates will force candidates to compete in a single nationwide primary election, albeit one that does not actually exist. It changes the game.

“People have lumpy strategies in different states,” says Sasha Issenberg, a Bloomberg Politics contributor and author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” “Their election strategies are predicated on not having their support evenly distributed. You look at Chris Christie and John Kasich banking on doing well in New Hampshire. You have Rand Paul banking on doing well in Nevada.”

Issenberg added, “This could turn their whole election strategy on its head.”

But differing methodologies complicate that calculation even more. Not every poll targets the same types of voters. There are polls that include independents. There are polls with self-identified Republicans, polls with verified registered Republicans, and polls that take an additional screening step to find only respondents who are likely to participate in their states’ primary election or caucus. Each method produces a different result, with broader survey samples benefiting candidates who are perceived as moderate — and candidates who have high name recognition, but not necessarily strong support in key early states.

“They’re using different definitions about who is relevant,” says J. Ann Selzer, president of Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which also conducts polls for Bloomberg Politics. “We’re not dealing with a common denominator.”

In the end, the set of candidates who make it to the debate stage in August will likely hinge on less than a handful of randomly selected voters. Sample sizes for national polls are small; in one recent national poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, the GOP horserace numbers were calculated based on the preferences of 236 Republicans who said they would vote in the primary. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 6.38 percentage points.

In that poll, only the four candidates — Bush, Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — received more than 10 percent. The 10th-place candidate, Fiorina (2 percent), and other contenders like Graham and Kasich (1 percent each), were statistically tied. When you do the math, the difference comes down to no more than two or three respondents.

The system Fox has designed, with its distortions and uncertainties, is a new wild card in presidential politics. And for the network, the silver lining may be that all the drama — and Trump — may help attract viewers. But the effect on the process is more questionable. “To a statistician it looks like they’re just bumbling around in the dark,” Selzer said. “They’re just throwing ingredients together and hoping it makes a cake.”

She added, “There’s a lot for candidates to complain about.”

(Margaret Talev contributed reporting.)

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: ario via Flickr

  • FireBaron

    Who will actually get on the stage for the debate? Whoever Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers tell Roger Ailes should be on the stage. The numbers can then be manipulated so their chosen few (along with a scattering of sacrificial lambs) will make the cut. Who to NOT look for? Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum. Who may or may not make it? Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, THE DONALD and Ben Carson. Who will probably be there regardless of their numbers? Scott Walker, JEB! (as it seems he no longer has a real last name), Marco Rubio.
    Finally, who wished he could be there to make up for the last two times? Willard Marriott Romney.

    • TZToronto

      Your method is as good as theirs since you’re probably right. On the other hand it will be good to see all the Republi-beasts savaging each other in the run-up to the debate. All of the good stuff can be used against them when the nominee is chosen next summer since everyone will have tried to destroy all of the others by then.

  • Daniel Jones

    This entire business makes me hurl.

    The network gets unwarranted and undeserved credibility for pruning away some of the nutbars, just as the front-runners get unwarranted and undeserved reputations for sanity compared with the aforementioned nutbars that get peeled away.

    This is.. reality TV reflected in the political process.

  • Billie

    i want to see Trump and Christi. See how nasty they can get with each other since they are supposedly friends.

    • Daniel Jones

      They’re “business friends”… be lucky if one or both of the4m don’t bleed out.

    • Dominick Vila

      Honestly, after watching Hillary’s “disappointing” performance on CNN yesterday, I am more interested in a Sanders-Clinton debate than whatever the GOP clowns decide to do.

      • 788eddie

        I think Bernie Sanders may show really well against Hillary. What will the Democrats do then?

        • Dominick Vila

          Nominate Sanders.

  • Grannysmovin

    After the 2012 debate fiasco Reince Priebus wanted to control the debates, so he turned it over to their PR firm Fox News. Another fine mess you gotten your party into Reince.

    • DAK27

      I agree. I don’t know why they replaced Michael Steele, he seemed to know what was what. Maybe that’s why he was replaced, he told uncomfortable truths about the GOP?

  • charleo1

    Whoever said, politics is just show business for ugly people, is looking more correct with every passing day. Especially in the Republican Primaries. Where in 2012 it took on all the worst aspects of a poorly produced, pre-canned reality show. A survivor like affair, with most of the suspense removed. Save for the what will go wrong next factor. The National embarrassment for the GOP. that followed, was what became know as the, “Clown Car Review.” And the anticlimactic election itself, wasn’t even close. So Roger Ailes, the staunch Nixonian news boss over at Fox News, seems to have convinced GOP Party leadership that these things are much harder to pull off than than they look. So this time, they’d be better off to leave this show business stuff to the professionals. Which opens up it’s own particularly odorous can of worms. For one thing, the currency of show business is fame. And winning the Iowa Caucuses does not a household name make. Won in New Hampshire, or S. Carolina? Who cares? What matters is how you are trending on Twitter? The problem for Governors like Bobbie Jindal, or Rick Santorum, who did win in Iowa last time around. Is, if not enough of those being polled around the Country don’t know who you are, they’re not going to, “vote,” for you. And you won’t make Fox’s arbitrary cut of 10% to make it on the debate stage. And you’re out of the show. The bright lights, and glitter of Broadway have lured, then broken many a pure deserving heart. That’s show biz. But should it really be the process by which the candidates from which nearly half of all American voters will be asked to choose?

    • The lucky one

      “the worst aspects of a poorly produced, pre-canned reality show. A survivor like affair, with most of the suspense removed.” I’d say that sums it up pretty well. Fox will choose the participants based on how they think it will affect viewership. That’s obvious from the fact that they haven’t disclosed which polls will be used. No question Trump is the primary clown so he is in whatever the polls say.

  • nana4gj

    As if the candidates were not bad enough; as if the policies, such as they can be called “policies” are not foolish and impractical enough, now, we have the worse “silly season” ever, really, really “silly”.

    Who can take the GOP seriously with this foolish incompetency? Who can believe they are all such credible candidates that “special handling” for their primaries are required? In fact, not one of them has what it takes to responsibly and effectively manage this country at home or in the world arena.

    The GOP has already done damage to the office of the Presidency and to the US Congress over the past 6+ years, at home and in the world. Now, they further demean and disgrace. They would be one big joke, if so much money was not wasted and tossed around as if producing some kind of show business, if the consequences were not so dire.

    I’m not laughing. Makes me sick enough to toss my cookies.

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  • FT66

    Much of: “fair & balanced”. Is this the way Fox News you show your fairness and balanced acts? Why discriminate candidates? Since when polls are taken 100% correct? How can those who are polled support anyone they have never heard of or seen? Isn’t being on stage and debate, people get to know the candidates and what they stand for? Fox News, you are showing your harshness and brutality.

  • Bob Eddy

    Simply put: The debate will include those candidares Fox “news” wants included. It appears to me that while Fox “news” was once the information arm of the Republican party, the Republican party now has become the political arm of Fox “news.”