As CNN Changes the Debate Rules, Which Candidates Are Left Out in the Cold?
Policy + Politics

As CNN Changes the Debate Rules, Which Candidates Are Left Out in the Cold?

If CNN showed anything when it announced last night that it had changed qualification rules for the debate to create a spot for surging Carly Fiorina, it was that the whole process of organizing 17 declared candidates into some sort of manageable discussion is practically guaranteed to require arbitrary and capricious decision making.

That’s not to suggest that Fiorina doesn’t deserve a spot on the main stage when the Republican candidates have their second debate on September 16 in California. Her breakout performance in the first “undercard debate” sparked a lot of interest in her candidacy, and the original qualification rules requiring her to build up her average poll numbers using a set of results from a time when nobody knew her name were plainly unfair to her.

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In a statement, CNN explained its reasoning: “We learned this week that there will likely be only two more polls by the deadline of September 10th. In a world where we expected there to be at least 15 national polls, based on historic precedent, it appears there will be only five. As a result, we now believe we should adjust the criteria to ensure the next debate best reflects the most current state of the national race.”

However, CNN had plainly made the determination in advance, like Fox News did last month, that 10 debaters on stage was the limit and that everyone who didn’t qualify would be relegated to a second-tier debate.

A real effort to make the debate stage “reflect the most current state of the national race” would have to acknowledge that while Fiorina has indeed surged, other candidates have lost ground. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, under such a scenario, wouldn’t make the top 10. Instead of giving Christie the boot, however, CNN elected to shoehorn another podium onto the already crowded stage for the GOP’s second debate. So now there will be 11.

CNN is somewhat less arbitrary in its decisions about what polls qualify for inclusion of the all-important average that determines a candidate’s qualification, limiting them to “live interviewer national polls” conducted by major news organizations or recognized academic and non-profit entities. That pointedly eliminates such well-known pollsters as Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling.

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It also creates challenges for some of the lower-tier candidates who have been in danger of failing to clear a different bar. CNN required candidates to “achieve an average of at least one percent in three national polls” in order to qualify for the undercard debate.

Under that rule, some candidates are barely going to make it onto the lower stage, and at least two seem not to have technically qualified.

Adding Fiorina to the top tier leaves former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore in the running for slots in the second-tier debate.

Perry and Santorum are both comfortably above the line, having tallied at least one percent in every qualifying poll so far. With only two more qualifying polls expected before the September 10 deadline, each will have no trouble demonstrating an “average” of one percent in three different polls. Jindal has struggled recently, but like Perry and Santorum, has enough one- and two-percent showings going back to July to allow him to claim the requisite three polls averaging 1 percent or better.

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Right now, Graham appears to have squeaked over the line, if just barely. In polls that qualify, he is averaging less than one half of one percent. However, with one percent showings in the sole polls by Bloomberg and Monmouth University currently in the mix, and an average of one percent in two CNN/ORC polls (two percent in July, zero in August), he just barely makes it.

Pataki, though he is tied with Graham at 0.45 percent in qualifying national polls, hasn’t concentrated his few successes in a way that satisfies the criteria. Currently he can boast only two qualifying polls in which his average is one percent or better.

Finally Gilmore, who has seen only one poll list him at one percent and whose average is 0.1 percent support, appears to have little hope of clearing even the low bar of qualifying for the second debate.