The Nine-to-Three Winnowing

Bloomberg Politics‘ Will Leitch has come up with the most apt sports analogy for the scramble to make the cut for the Fox News GOP presidential candidate debate–the “bubble watch” focused on college basketball teams fighting to make the NCAA tournament–and the most precise list of the candidates who are “on the bubble:”

If you look at the early poll numbers—and remember, we’re still not sure exactly which polls Fox will be using—it appears there are seven candidates who are comfortably in, off the bubble, your North Carolinas and your UCLAs: Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee. They have nothing to worry about, and, unlike the N.C.A.A. tournament, they needn’t worry about seeding.

Then you have nine candidates in competition for the three remaining slots. In whatever order you want them: Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki. These are your bubble teams. The next month may very well turn out to be their whole campaign. If they make the top 10, they can campaign like normal candidates again, with the stage and the platform they expected when they announced in the first place. If they don’t, though … the bubble bursts. While those left out certainly still have a path forward, they will have failed the first test.

This analogy also nicely positions Leitch to discuss the craziness this situation encourages–it’s the political version of “March Madness,” you see.

A winnowing of six candidates (whoever of the nine “on the bubble” don’t make it) is pretty harsh for this early in the cycle, though we should remember the now-displaced Iowa GOP Straw Poll has in its day killed off some pretty big names (Tim Pawlenty, Sam Brownback, Lamar (!) Alexander, Liddy Dole, among others). More to the point, the ranks of the “winnowed” could include one candidate the GOP badly wants on the debate stage (Fiorina), one a lot of MSM folk have decided could be the ultimate winner (Kasich), and one who’s already being fitted for the John McCain Memorial Comeback Kid jersey (Christie), while letting the one candidate most likely to make a nightmarish hash of the debate, Donald Trump, past the velvet rope.

This last factor leads Leitch to wonder if what we are seeing is an unprecedented divergence of the interests of Fox News and of the Republican Party:

The Republican Party, top to bottom, would do anything in its power to keep Trump out of the debate, while for Fox (along with CNN), Trump not only means eyeballs, he means outstanding television. Tossing Trump in on stage turns every debate into a fiasco, which is bad for the Republican Party but ratings manna for the cable networks. We have finally found where Fox News and conservative politics diverge: Donald Trump.

Worse yet, the dynamics could Trumpify the “bubble candidates:”

The irony is that Trumpism is exactly what Jindal, Cruz, Perry and company will all have to be doing to make sure their bubble doesn’t burst. Worry about the butter sculptures at the Iowa State Fair later. Right now, you’ve got to get in the game, which means going national.

Leitch doesn’t make the full circle argument that the best national forum for wild candidate capering is Fox News, but it’s an easy conclusion to reach. I still think there’s a chance, even at this late date, that Fox will bend to GOP pressure to change the whole format, even if it’s just to find some way to elevate the Thursday afternoon “forum” it’s offering to the candidates who don’t make the big cut (sort of the NIT for presidential candidates, I guess). But there’s not a lot of time to avoid what could big a big mess.

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.