Is CNN about to screw up its upcoming GOP primary debate by screwing over one of the candidates? At least one aggrieved Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, is angry today about the criteria the venerable cable news network will use to choose its debate participants, and her campaign has taken to the medium of Medium to air its grievances. Well, guess what? Fiorina's right, and CNN is wrong.
But let's take a step back. During the midsummer run-up to the first GOP primary debate -- hosted by Fox News in Cleveland on Aug. 6 -- one big topic of conversation was the unwieldy size of the pool of contenders and how they could all be accommodated at one debate. And the novel solution that Fox hit upon was to not solve it at all: Instead of jamming 17 people on the stage, Fox -- using data from the five most recent polls -- would give those averaging in the top 10 the primetime debate slot. The unlucky seven that didn't make the cut would get a seat at a smaller table.
For those seven candidates -- which, along with Fiorina, included Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum -- sequestration at this minor debate meant they were really only going to get one shot at getting into the top tier. Realistically, there was only ever going to be one winner -- one candidate who'd ascend to the more rarefied air of the next mainstage debate, to be hosted by CNN on Sept. 16th in Simi Valley, California.
Here's the thing, though! I thought that we were all basically in agreement about who it was that won that first undercard debate. Let's take a look at the headlines from the day after:
Slate: "Carly Fiorina Won the Preliminary Debate. It Wasn’t Even Close."
Washington Post: "Carly Fiorina won the ‘Happy Hour’ debate. By a lot."
NBC News: "Carly Fiorina Wins Buzz After 'Happy Hour' Debate"
New York Post: "Carly Fiorina surging in polls after ‘winning’ GOP debate"
Vox: "Carly Fiorina was the clear winner of Fox News's first debate"
The Federalist: "Carly Fiorina Easily Wins Early GOP Debate"
Reuters, as rendered by Business Insider: "Everyone's saying Carly Fiorina won the early Republican debate today"
So -- from online to print, national to local, left-leaning to right-leaning, to "Everyone" -- we sort of had a clear consensus: the winner was Carly Fiorina. And more importantly, voters quantitatively agreed:
Here, via HuffPost Pollster, you can see how everyone stuck at the "happy hour" debate has fared since the lights went down that night. The only candidate whose fortunes are diverging in the right direction is Fiorina. This is how this was supposed to work! Seven candidates were going to have one opportunity to move up, and -- as with Highlanders -- there could be only one. Fiorina was that one, plain and simple.
Obviously, the Fiorina campaign agrees with this point of view, and over at their outpost on Medium, Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores has compiled even more compelling data backing up their case:
In the three national polls that have been released since the debate, Carly is between 4th and 7th place. Her name ID and net favorability have risen by double digits. And she has continued to impress crowds during her most recent trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Nevada.
The state polling since the first debate is even more stark — and relevant, since that’s actually how we pick presidential nominees in this country. Here’s how Carly ranks in every state poll since the first debate: New Hampshire: 3rd; South Carolina: 4th; Wisconsin: 5th; Florida: 5th; Ohio: 6th; Pennsylvania: 4th; Nevada: 2nd; North Carolina: 6th; Arizona: 3rd; Iowa: 5th; Michigan: 2nd; Missouri: 7th; New Hampshire: 5th; Iowa: 5th; Iowa: 5th.
I mean, this all checks out. So what's the problem here? Well, in this post, Flores accuses "the political establishment" of "rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage." I don't think the problem is that ornate. I just think CNN is using some perplexing standards to determine its top 10, by which I mean it's going to use poll data from polls dating back to July 16. Per Flores:
Carly would easily make this debate if there were a consistent number of polls from one week to the next, but that’s not the case. In the three weeks before the first debate, CNN will be counting nine polls. In the three weeks since the debate, they will only be counting two. By simply averaging these polls together, CNN will be weighting the three weeks of polling before the debate more than three times as heavily as the three weeks of polling after Carly won the first debate.
Yeah, that's stupid. At this point, polls from mid-July have no salience. The beginning of the debate season marked an escalation in voter engagement and truly opened the competitive period of the nominating contest. By giving such weight to polls from what is, for all intents and purposes, a bygone age, CNN is making it much harder for Fiorina to capitalize on the momentum she's earned -- a phenomenon that Philip Bump demonstrates in great detail at The Washington Post.
More importantly, CNN is making it harder for its readers and viewers to obtain an accurate picture of where the GOP race has gone in the past month and what the state of play is now -- and an accurate picture would place Fiorina squarely in contention and in the conversation.
I don't necessarily think that CNN is purposefully putting its thumb on the scale, here, because the network would really have nothing to gain by intentionally excluding Fiorina. But from the campaign's point of view, you may as well go out and make the accusation of a "rigged" system. Out here in the real world, where real voters have registered their newfound appreciation for Fiorina in appreciable ways, any decision to exclude her just doesn't square. Let's just look again at the current HuffPost Pollster polling average, with the entire field included:
We have Fiorina in a safe seventh place at the moment, which would comfortably get her into the mainstage debate. Besides, can it credibly be said that she belongs with her former competitors from August's smaller debate? Right now, if those six candidates and their polling numbers combined to form Loser GOP Presidential Candidate Voltron, they still couldn't overtake Fiorina.
This is dumb and CNN needs to fix this. Carly Fiorina earned promotion from the smaller table, and the next debate should reflect that. Putting her back in the also-ran division will send the message to voters that there's no point to tuning in to that lesser competition, and that overcoming that interesting and daunting challenge -- which Fiorina did! -- is meaningless. Fiorina is seventh. Let her debate, and don't worry about the other six contenders who couldn't get out of the lower division. You surely aren't going to see Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal writing a blog post on Medium about how they "won" that debate, anyway. Though it would be highly entertaining.
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