If you thought the presidential primary debates were fun last election cycle (remember “Oops”?), this year could be 2012 on steroids. The Republican field has more candidates (18 by The New York Times’ count) than in any recent primary, and debate organizers have been wrestling with one main question: How the heck can we fit all the candidates on a stage?
The answer from Fox News and CNN (which are separately hosting the first two televised debates) is to invite the top 10 candidates as determined by a national polling average, and leave everyone else out. CNN will also have the candidates polling outside the top 10 (and above 1 percent) debate separately.
So who’s likely to be left out?
Across any sort of average, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker would make a debate held today. They’re all polling above 5 percent. So that leaves two open spots. The polls will probably move before the first debate, in August, but at this moment who gets to fill those final two spots depends on how you take the polling average. (I refuse to include Donald Trump.)
Go the standard RealClearPolitics average route, where only one poll by each pollster is included in the average, and the final two candidates to get in are Rick Perry at 2.4 percent and Rick Santorum at 2.3 percent. John Kasich, at 2.0 percent, is left peering through the window. Basically, Santorum would be in and Kasich would be out because Kasich received only 2 percent in an April CNN poll, and Santorum got 3 percent. That disparity is, of course, well within the margin of error.
Maybe you prefer the Huffington Post/Pollster aggregate, which is based on a local regression estimate. Again, Perry makes it at 2.4 percent. This time, however, Kasich gets the 10th spot at 1.8 percent, and Carly Fiorina (1.6 percent) and Santorum (1.5 percent) are left out. A single good poll for Fiorina or Santorum could move either of them past Kasich. Two bad polls for Perry could knock him out.
But … Fox News won’t use either of these standard aggregates (CNN hasn’t said what type of polling average it will use). Fox will average the last five polls that are conducted by “major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.” That probably means non-partisan polls conducted by live interviewers. If you were running the numbers today, you would include a Fox News poll started on May 9, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll started on April 26, a Fox News poll started on April 19, a Quinnipiac University poll started on April 16 and a CNN poll started on April 16.
And you know where that gets us? Perry is ninth at 2.4 percent, and there is a tie for the 10th spot between Kasich and Santorum at 2 percent. In other words, there could be 11 candidates debating instead of 10. (Fox has said the debate could include more than 10 participants in the case of a tie.) Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham come close at 1.2 percent. Fiorina ends up dead last at 1 percent.
But there’s another wrinkle: It’s possible Fox News will only allow for one poll from each pollster in order to ensure that none floods the zone. In that case, the April Fox News poll is out and a Monmouth University poll started on March 30 is in. In this average, Perry is still ninth, but Santorum squeaks past Kasich. I can hear the Kasich camp screaming right now.
In terms of CNN’s consolation debate, Fiorina, Jindal and either Kasich or Santorum will likely take part since they are at or above 1 percent in the polling averages. Fiorina, as I mentioned, is close to falling below the 1 percent threshold, according to the average of the five live-interview polls. Graham is at 1 percent in most averages, though he’s at only 0.6 percent in the Pollster aggregate.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how exactly CNN and Fox deal with the polls. Slightly different averages and rules could leave some candidates out and bring others in. Now, who wants to have some fun?!