Keiko Hiromi / Polaris

Fights over Republican debates promise to continue after Milwaukee

Candidates and Republican Party leaders tussle over whether debate lineups should be based on national or state polls

When eight Republican presidential hopefuls take the stage in Milwaukee tonight for a debate sponsored by the Fox Business Network, they will be arranged according to front-runner status. Poll leaders Donald Trump and Ben Carson will be in the center, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul at the just-made-it ends. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina fill out the spaces in between.

Earlier in the evening, the undercard debate will include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Former New York Gov. George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have been excluded from Tuesday’s debates.

The four opinion polls that determined this lineup — chosen by the network — were all national surveys. According to the rules for this event, the prime-time debate stage was reserved for those who averaged at least 2.5 percent across the four polls.

Again, these are national opinion polls, from a sampling of likely GOP primary voters across the United States. “National polls are not an indicator of anything,” Michael Steele, a former head of the Republican National Committee, told MSNBC on Monday. “You need to look at the first four primary states.”

With the election a year away, Steele argued that only in those early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — are voters truly paying attention and that polls in those states better capture the preferences of GOP voters.

Reince Priebus, who succeeded Steele as RNC chairman, now seems to share that view. Priebus has called for “select Republican National Committee members” to meet in Milwaukee on Wednesday with the goal of reshaping future Republican events. As reported by National Review, a magazine with close ties to the GOP, those gathered will craft “a strategy for convincing the networks to make two changes to their qualification guidelines: raising the cutoff percentage in polling and using early-state polls instead of national ones.”

Priebus and his party have had trouble balancing the demands of the various candidates with the television networks’ desire for ratings and the RNC’s imperative to field a competitive ticket in the 2016 general election. He took heat after the Oct. 28 CNBC Republican debate, in which candidates found there was much political hay to be made in criticizing the debate format and the media in general. The RNC has been playing catch-up with the campaigns ever since. (Candidates went so far as to call a Washington, D.C., meeting on Nov. 1 that excluded anyone from the Republican National Committee. That meeting generated a draft letter with a long list of demands about future debates, but differences among the campaigns caused the mini-rebellion to dissipate.)

Raising the qualifying percentage for debates would likely reduce the number of candidates on the stage. That would address a concern voiced by some campaigns that their standard bearers were not getting enough airtime in earlier contests, in which up to 11 candidates were included. But the move would take away national exposure from campaigns that need to attract February voters and see the debates as fundraising opportunities.

That places greater importance on how the debate participants are chosen. One need look no further than tonight to see how a shift from national to state polling would change things.

Jindal has again failed to make the main stage. He often hovers near the bottom of national surveys. But Jindal, a social conservative, has been performing much better in Iowa in recent weeks. A Nov. 1 PPP poll had him at 6 percent (PDF). In this extremely crowded field, it ties him for fifth place. In the Real Clear Politics rolling average of Iowa surveys, he places seventh, which would give him a place in the main event.

Christie has staked his presidential hopes on New Hampshire, making regular trips to the Granite State. A recent video of a town hall meeting, where he speaks with compassion about drug addiction, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube and has given him some traction in regional polls. While he did not make the 2.5 percent cut for Milwaukee’s prime-time forum on the basis of national surveys, New Hampshire polls tell a different story. A Nov. 1 WBUR/MassINC poll has him at 8 percent (PDF), which is good enough for fifth place and well within striking distance of Trump and Carson, the leaders in that survey.

The RCP New Hampshire average has Christie at 5 percent, which is good enough for eighth place right now.

This is about not just early state voters paying attention but also the importance of state-level organization. The successes in Iowa of Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 did not match national polling at the time. Of course, neither of those men went on to win their party’s nomination, but the surprise winner of the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses, Barack Obama, did. What those three campaigns had in common was strong local organizing in Iowa, built over years and based on personal relationships, rather than national fundraising.

Those are the stories that have many analysts looking past Trump and Carson to the next tier of candidates. With a suspicion that the lack of political experience and campaign infrastructure of the outsider candidates will trigger a realignment after the Iowa and New Hampshire results are in, candidates like Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, Christie and Jindal — and even Bush, once seen as inevitable but now floundering — may all find themselves closer to the center of the stage.

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