A group of lower-polling presidential candidates just got their wish.
On Wednesday, CNBC released its criteria for qualifying for the upcoming Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado.
The network said it will host two presidential debates — one for candidates who poll over 3% in a group of selected national polls, and another for candidates who receive at least 1% in a national poll.
That’s a win for the lower-tier candidates, who just days ago weren’t clear whether they’d get to participate in the early, “undercard” debate at all, and had pressed the Republican National Committee to keep such a debate on the docket.
In an interview with CNN after the second GOP debate series in September, an RNC spokesman indicated that there may not be an “undercard” contest at the third debate in Boulder, Colorado, on October 28. The past two debates, hosted by Fox and CNN, have both featured an early debate for lower-polling candidates.
Several campaigns became worried that not even being allowed to participate in an “undercard,” early debate would further condemn them to permanent low-tier status — and ruin chances to capitalise on potential breakout moments.
At least one campaign and several political observers speculated the RNC was attempting to “winnow down” a crowded field.
In a letter to RNC Chair Reince Priebus first reported by Politico and obtained by Business Insider, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-South Carolina) campaign manager said he met with an RNC staffer who told him that the “time is coming when the field needs to be winnowed down.”
The move from Graham’s campaign was the most direct appeal to the committee. Christian Ferry, Graham’s campaign manager, charged in the letter that the RNC was unfairly tipping the scales for the higher-polling candidates, a move he portrayed as contradictory to the organisation’s pledge to stay neutral during the primary.
“These are not ‘also-ran’ campaigns, and the RNC should stop treating them as such,” Ferry said.
Ferry also reiterated the argument that because the majority of the candidates are clustered with single-digit support in the polls, it was unfair to rely too heavily on what are essentially minuscule margins in early polls.
“If we have learned anything from the campaign to date, we have learned that it is completely unpredictable and that conventional wisdom is anything but wise. To try to sit here today and predict what will happen two weeks from now, let alone five months from now, is an exercise in futility.”
Political experts have long noted that early polls are rarely predictive of eventual nominees. In the 2012 Republican primary, for example, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) saw his poll numbers linger in single digits for months until breaking out in late 2011. He went on to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
The RNC has rebuffed requests by some of the lower-polling candidates and some political analysts who called for a process that would have randomly selected candidates for two debates. This approach would have ignored polling and randomly shuffled the candidates.
As Politico has reported, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) staff also said it was also lobbying the RNC to keep Jindal on stage. Jindal’s team was concerned the RNC was bowing to pressure from donors to slim down the field of potential candidates.
There’s a strong incentive for lower-tier candidates to appear in the early debates, even though they don’t garner as much attention as the main-stage features. After polling around 1% for months, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina saw a spike in her poll numbers following a strong performance at the first early debate, catapulting her to the main stage and close to the front of the pack.
Many political pundits said Graham stood out in the second “undercard” debate, but he has so far not experienced a similar bump in the polls.
Still, a standout performance piques the interest of the millions of people who have watched even the early debates. A Graham campaign spokesperson told Business Insider earlier in September that the senator saw a noticeable bump in media coverage, social-media attention and attendance at campaign events immediately following the second debate.
The RNC declined to comment on the Graham campaign’s letter. But Priebus applauded CNBC’s criteria.
“We have the most diverse and experienced field of candidates in history and we applaud CNBC’s efforts to ensure that all of our top candidates will have an opportunity to share their views with the American people,” he said.
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