Winnowing By Spots on the Stage

So two parallel stories in the GOP Invisible Primary this week have been the rules set for the first two candidate debates, and the game of hot potato being played over who will and won’t participate in the Iowa GOP Straw Poll on August 8. In examining why Mike Huckabee is skipping the Straw Poll, the Iowa Republican‘s Craig Robinson pulls the two subjects together in suggesting that the debates could serve the same “winnowing” effect the Straw Poll has traditionally performed:

There is also another dynamic at work here that didn’t exist in previous cycles. The large field of 2016 Republican candidates is making the debate stage really crowded. Both CNN and FOX News recently said that they would limit the debate stage to the top ten candidates. This is a huge development in the presidential campaigns’ poker game.

Huckabee doesn’t have to worry about getting in the debates as he routinely polls in the top five of all national and state polls. That’s not the case for Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, or Lindsey Graham. So what would help Huckabee’s strategy to win Iowa? He needs candidates like Santorum and Jindal out of the race.

Huckabee could accomplish that in two ways. One, by beating them in something like the Straw Poll, which costs lots of money and has other risks associated with it. Or two, Huckabee could slow play it, and let the debates actually clear his main rivals for the Christian conservative votes in Iowa. Huckabee is essentially taking the conservative approach by counting on the debates to winnow the large 2016 GOP field.

Sure enough, Fox News is limiting participation in the first debate on August 6 (just two days before the straw poll) to its estimation of the top ten candidates in public opinion surveys. And if you look at the latest national Fox poll, Rick Perry’s 11th, Rick Santorum’s 12th, and Bobby Jindal is 14th. If you figure candidates not tested (e.g., Donald Trump and John Kasich) might later make the top ten, and take seriously my suggestion that the whole GOP is going to conspire to boost Carly Fiorina’s standing to get her on that stage, then it’s already white-knuckle time for the Ricks and for Bobby. That not only confirms Robinson’s point about Huckabee letting the debates do the winnowing, but also indicates the endangered candidates might decide to devote their resources to whatever it takes to get them into the national polling Top Ten rather than screwing around with chartering buses to Boone.

Some might object that nobody will be paying attention to any of this in August and second-tier candidates will have a later chance to make their move. But I’d say nothing makes a presidential candidate look less presidential than spending his or her time whining about being excluded from debates–particularly if the candidate is a Republican and the excluder is Fox News.

In any event, the high likelihood that debates using polling data may serve as a winnower of the field resolves one debate we’ve all been having: for Republicans, at least, and this year, at least, early horse-race polls really do matter.

UPDATE: At FiveThirtyEight today, Harry Enten goes through a similar exercise, but with the added advantage of knowing Fox’s exact polling standard for determining the Top Ten:

Fox will average the last five polls that are conducted by “major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.” That probably means non-partisan polls conducted by live interviewers. If you were running the numbers today, you would include a Fox News poll started on May 9, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll started on April 26, a Fox News poll started on April 19, a Quinnipiac University poll started on April 16 and a CNN poll started on April 16.

By that standard right now Rick Perry would make the cut, Rick Santorum would be right on the cut line, and Bobby Jindal would be excluded. But there would still be a lot of unresolved angst in the air.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.