The race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination blew up months ago. Nothing is as it was. The front-runner at the start of 2015 (Jeb Bush) is polling at 6 percent in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll. The rising star at the start of 2015 (Scott Walker) is polling at 2 percent in the same poll. Another former front-runner (Chris Christie, who after his 2013 reelection briefly shot to the top) is now at 1 percent. And likely Republican voters are most enthusiastic about a pair of political outsiders (Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson), who are attracting a combined 50 percent, or more, in recent surveys.
Nothing is as it was.
Yet the Republican National Committee and the media “partners” with which it is managing debates stand amid the wreckage and pretend that the old order is pretty much in place.
In so doing, they are warping the character and content of debates that have proven to be increasingly critical to a competition that is—at least at this point—more defined by free media than advertising strategies.
The warping is most evident at the margins, where the party and its partners make adjustments to help some candidates gain a place in top-tier debates among supposedly “major” contenders, while denying places to equally qualified and potentially more interesting—and controversial—contenders. This is a big deal for second- and third-tier candidates, because, as The New York Times explains, “Mindful that 24 million people watched the August debate on Fox, the Republicans have come to see these monthly encounters as their greatest opportunity to try to break out of the 17 candidate field.”
It is not just at the margins that these decisions influence the direction of the debates, however. By excluding credible contenders who have been particularly critical of Trump—such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently delivered a blistering speech detailing the front-runner’s flaws—the RNC and its partners are providing a measure of insulation for the blustering billionaire. This may be an unintended consequence. But it is a consequence all the same.
The bottom line is that ill-considered and often unreasonable choices with regard to the debates are defining the Republican presidential race, and similarly poor choices could well shape the Democratic presidential race.
How wrongheaded are the choices that are being made?
Consider the circumstance of Chris Christie.
The governor of New Jersey will part of the main stage debate on Wednesday night, despite the fact that he is tanking everywhere. In the CBS survey and in a new ABC News/Washington Post survey, he is polling no better than candidates who have been consigned to the earlier “kids’ table” debate: Jindal, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former New York governor George Pataki and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.