Aug 6 7:00 AM

Republicans vie for attention from Fox and its viewers

Not the first debate: Many Republican presidential hopefuls gathered earlier this week in New Hampshire.
Bill Sikes / AP Photo

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry could not remember the third of three government agencies he vowed to cut if elected president ... and then burned up over a minute of his precious airtime trying out loud to remember during an early GOP debate from the 2012 presidential primary season, he went from a formidable, well-funded, big-state candidate to a human sizzle reel of weird, awkward and, most notably, seemingly unpresidential moments. It was only about nine weeks before Perry no longer shared the stage with other Republican hopefuls — he dropped out of the race after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This time around, the former Texas governor will not have a shot at a repeat performance when the chosen 10 from a field of 17 declared candidates for the GOP nomination take the stage in Cleveland — but it is not for lack of trying. Perry is very much running for president but has not been deemed worthy of the prime time event by the sponsors of the debate, the Fox News Channel.

The criteria for who was worthy has been the subject of some controversy and some bemusement from the likes Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and others who, along with Perry, will be shut out of the big show. Fox, believing that having all 17 candidates on stage at once would not make for an informative debate (nor good TV, for that matter), announced it would limit participation to the top-ten contenders as measured by an average of the five most recent national presidential preference polls.

And then they didn’t.

The fact that using averages of numbers at the margins of multicandidate polls delivers results with too much uncertainty has been discussed and demonstrated. One leading pollster even pulled its presidential preference question from this week’s survey as a way of protesting having their scientific research tool used in such an unscientific way. Polling organizations, it seems, like trying to predict winners and losers, but not so much deciding them.

But when Fox drew lots for the Thursday debate, they didn’t average the five most recent randomized national telephone polls. Instead, they chose five of the six most recent polls. They dropped the numbers from a very recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and replaced them with an older survey. At first this went without explanation, but then, after some other networks thought it odd to omit a poll co-sponsored by another Rupert Murdoch media entity, Fox issued a late-Tuesday press release questioning the questions asked in the NBC/WSJ survey.

Many Republicans questioned Fox's methodology in selecting the five polls that bookended the main stage with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and left Perry and six other flagging campaigns to decide whether to sit at Fox’s 5 p.m. consolation roundtable.

Make your own top ten with Al Jazeera’s poll-averaging tool

And the reasons why America gets this particular bridge mix seems to be an open secret. Roger Ailes, president of Fox News — who, by all appearances, has relished the abuse he’s gotten for presumably playing presidential candidate kingmaker — knows TV, and good programming sense dictates at least a couple of things.

First, leaving out the sitting governor of the state in which you are holding the debate could make for some potentially bad press in advance of the show, some potentially tangled logistics for Fox’s crew and equipment, and perhaps most importantly, a potentially lower viewing audience in a swing state — a state most GOP strategists see as crucial to winning the White House next year.

Second, what would make for a better on-camera showdown? Current frontrunner Donald Trump vs. Perry (who has already said he would respond to Trump’s attacks by challenging him to a pull-up contest) or Trump vs. Christie, who is perhaps the only person in the race more comfortable with flinging insults than the Donald.

Lower ratings and fewer electoral votes make for much more compelling selection-day arguments than whether pollsters read the full names of the candidates, right?

Subject to debate

But how much the debate lineup will matter to candidates' prospects remains a subject of some debate.

Voters say that the information they gain from presidential debates is valuable. Pew has found two-thirds of voters regularly report that debates are “very” or “somewhat” important.

But voters also say that TV commercials — and especially negative campaign ads — are not important, even though campaign polling reveals otherwise (at least when those tools are properly used).

Here, it seems, there is a reporting bias. It feels good to say debates are important; much less so to admit campaign ads could change a vote. But the general impression among researchers is that debates have little effect on voter preference.

There are exceptions, of course. Gerald Ford placed Poland outside the Eastern Bloc, George H.W. Bush looked impatiently at his watch, and Rick Perry, uh, um ... oops! Gaffes, especially ones that confirm a widely held bias or specifically undermine campaign themes, have a sticking power that puts candidates on the defensive and dominates news cycles, making it hard to push any other messages.

And there is another fairly universal caveat. Most debates don’t matter much, but first debates often do. Early debates — before voter fatigue sets in and when there is little else reportable in the election-news cycle — can magnify both good moments and bad.

This is especially true for lesser-known candidates who need this kind of prime time exposure to boost name recognition, fundraising and the sort of gravitas that comes from holding your own against the seasoned career politicians.

That could be galling for the second-tier candidates forced into what is being called the “happy hour debate.” It no doubt already is for some who desperately needed the traditional media spotlight to generate some traditional big-spender donations.

But therein lies the rub — and perhaps a glimmer of hope (or an ominous warning) for candidates on both sides of Roger Ailes’ great divide. While tonight’s debate might turn out to be the highest-rated program ever for Fox News, audiences for cable news across the board continue to dwindle. Both of the past two election cycles have seen increased reliance on Web-based media — both by the campaigns and by the voters.

If a candidate gets in a good zinger, or lets drop a big “oopsie” — whether at 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. — it will be in tweets and vines and on Facebook and YouTube around the clock by Friday.

And there’s nothing Roger Ailes can do about it. 

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