The Republican presidential debates, a mangled attempt at discourse that everyone is now complaining about, are going to get a whole lot worse. It is not the fault of inept or partisan moderators. It is not even the fault of inept or partisan candidates—although they do bear some responsibility for this rolling fiasco. It is the fault of the Republican National Committee and the media partners with which the RNC has cooked up an indefensibly arbitrary system for determining who can and who cannot debate.
The RNC and media outlets such as the Fox Business Channel, which will host the next debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday, have decided to rely on national polls to determine whether credible contenders for the presidency of the United States are afforded a forum or kicked to the curb. In so doing they have not merely affronted basic premises of American democracy; they have set up a scenario where the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan will have debates with fewer and fewer serious voices.
In the October 28 CNBC debate, the most thoughtful voices were those of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. While the other candidates avoided questions by engaging in petty squabbling with one another and self-serving complaints about the approach of the moderators, Huckabee and Christie actually participated—and contributed—in a meaningful way. Huckabee’s defense of Social Security distinguished him from the rest of the field, and the same was the case with Christie’s savvy discussion of corporate accountability.
Yet, when the candidates gather again in Milwaukee on Tuesday, neither Huckabee nor Christie will be allowed to participate in the main debate. Under a new rule that dismisses candidates who have not maintained an average of at least 2.5 percent support in the four most recent major polls conducted through November 4, they’re out. Huckabee and Christie will no longer be raising the quality of the debate with bombastic billionaire Donald Trump, distracted Dr. Ben Carson and whining Senator Marco Rubio. They will instead be at the kid’s table, begging for attention with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
No one will be debating South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who was broadly recognized as the winner of the last undercard debate—and who has been willing to directly challenge Trump’s extreme statements. Nor will they be debating New York Governor George Pataki, who unlike the rest of the field takes relatively mainstream positions on reproductive rights issues. Graham and Pataki are out of the debates altogether because of another new rule that excludes candidates who do not score at least 1 percent support in at least one of those four most recent national polls.
Barring candidates who bring a greater degree of seriousness and more diverse views to the table does not make for better debates. It makes for debates that are even more intellectually constipated and lacking in substance. It is simply the case, as Pataki explains, that “The voters, not networks driven by ratings or national polls that are statistically irrelevant, should decide our next president.”
So why is this happening? Because the networks want debates with fewer candidates on stage. They want a good visual image, and perhaps better theater, not the clash of ideas that should determine the direction of a nomination contest. As Graham’s campaign manager, Christian Ferry, says, “the biggest loser…is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”
The hijackers are trying to make their choices look practical and rational. But the standard of exclusion is arbitrary and absurd. Polls are not just unreliable—most surveys blew the Kentucky governor’s race that was decided on Tuesday—they provide wildly contradictory images of multi-candidate contests.
National polls frequently have margins of error in the range of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points. What that means is that candidates who are being excluded could actually be stronger contenders than candidates who are being included in both the main debate and the undercard debate. Notably, in the latest Fox News poll Huckabee is running even with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at 4 percent. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Christie is running even with former CEO Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Yet Bush, Fiorina and Paul are in the main debate, while Huckabee and Christie are out.
More significantly, as everyone knows, the 2016 race will be defined by early results from key caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, Christie has actually gained traction, polling as high as 8 percent. And Huckabee maintains a base of support in Iowa, where he won the caucuses in 2008.
“I tell people, ‘Ignore the national polls and just follow those early states,’” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Yet, says Luntz, “now national polls drive the debates, and debates drive the polling.”
Even if national polls were reliable, they are lousy tools for including or excluding candidates from party debates in the early stages of nomination contests. As Steve Duprey, a veteran Republican operative who chairs the RNC’s debate subcommittee, explains, “When you do debates based on national polls, it undermines the ability of a lesser-known, lesser-funded candidate to get traction.”
It also undermines the ability of Republicans to have the genuine debate that every party needs at this stage in the nominating process. Pataki is right when he argues that “Running for the most important leadership position in the world shouldn’t be reduced to the level of American Idol or Survivor.”
But it has been—by the Republican National Committee and television networks that have shown no respect for the idea that real debates have a role to play in shaping real democracy.