The Winnowing

I’ve been writing off and on here about the significance of the vast GOP presidential field and the various ways it might be “winnowed,” with special attention lately to the potentially critical role of the Fox News “top ten in the polls” screen for participation in the first candidate debate on August 6. I wrote it all up for this week’s TPMCafe column, linking to a couple of pieces I hadn’t seen earlier agreeing with my hunch that suddenly poll-obsessed marginal candidates might be tempted to say and do crazy things to get that critical bump in name ID or support.

Now I’m wondering if a backlash is developing that might convince Fox to change its mind about the candidate limit. Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg condemned it yesterday in a column that the marginal candidates are sure to circulate:

[A]ny approach that limits the field so early in the race, at least five months before the first contest involving voters, seems inherently unfair. And using national polls to select participants in early debates seems odd when the first few actual tests of strength involve small, retail politics states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

This second point from Rothenberg illustrates why representatives of the early states could join a debate-limit backlash: the limit will inevitably and perhaps dramatically shift the attention of marginal candidates from Iowa and New Hampshire to national media centers. Indeed, the Fox News “winnowing” may be in the process of entirely replacing the traditional winnowing function of the Iowa Straw Poll, which is in danger of going belly-up.

A key question is what party elites who have been worried about a large and uncontrolled presidential field decide to do. They may decide the ten-candidate limit is a gift from God–or at least from His representative on earth, Roger Ailes–and defend it. Or they may fret about this or that candidate being left out–notably Carly Fiorina, whose absence might lead GOPers to make the remaining candidates draw straws to pick someone who has to cross-dress. And others may game out the “winnowed” field and decide it helps candidates they don’t like–say, Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz, whose right-wing competition might be significantly reduced.

In any event, the pressure on Fox will probably mount for a while. “Fixing” the problem is easy enough; as Rothenberg suggests, both Fox and the second debate sponsor, CNN, could set up two separate but equal debates to accommodate the entire field. What that would do to viewership is another matter. But if something doesn’t happen soon, the candidates most at risk of falling off the face of the earth are going to have to start taking some chances, and things could get weird.

UPDATE: I realize now that Jonathan Bernstein was among the first to game this all out, and he focuses on the interesting point that the RNC could have avoided this situation by setting its own debate rules instead of ceding them to the sponsors. Though again: it’s not entirely obvious what you do with a field this large.

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.