Are debate rules (unfairly) hurting Carly Fiorina?

Carly Fiorina is polling among the top 10 Republican presidential candidates, yet she might not be invited to the next top-tier debate. In some ways, however, that could work to her advantage.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina shucks an ear of corn during a visit to the Iowa State Fair earlier this month in Des Moines.

Is Carly Fiorina being treated fairly by the Republican Party and CNN? She certainly doesn’t think she is. And she may have a point.

The issue is whether the former Hewlett-Packard chief will be allowed into the main event at the next GOP primary debate, scheduled for Sept. 16 in California.

Remember the first debate, held Aug. 6? Ms. Fiorina wasn’t in the top 10 candidates, according to the criteria used by host Fox News. She was relegated to the early-evening undercard for lower-tier contenders. But she did well, according to the pundit consensus – she was crisp and forceful, in contrast to others on the stage. Subsequently, she’s risen in the polls.

In the latest CNN/ORC survey, Fiorina is now drawing about 5 percent support. That’s good enough for seventh place in the field. Since CNN’s the host of the September shootout, she’s a shoo-in, right? The main debate’s all about the top 10 poll performers.

Except there’s a flaw in the ointment for Fiorina: CNN’s previously-announced rules don’t make it easy for candidates to move between the major and minor debate leagues. CNN will base its top 10 on an average of major polls dating back to July 16, well before the first debate.

Under those criteria, Fiorina doesn’t make the cut. So she’s arguing that the rules are ridiculous.

“It’s a little bit like saying if you have a lousy game in the preseason, and you play great all season long and you make it to the playoff, you don’t get to play in the playoffs because of the preseason game,” said Fiorina during an Iowa campaign appearance on Thursday. “It kind of doesn’t seem fair to me.”

Fiorina’s contacted CNN and the Republican National Committee to complain, of course. Their response has been, in so many words, “too bad.” The criteria came out four months ago. They’re designed to lessen the influence of outlier poll results. Everyone has to live by the rules.

Tough? Maybe, but maybe not. Remember, the goal for lower-tier candidates is not to get into the big debate, per se. It’s to get noticed. Fiorina may actually get as much or more press coverage by being barred from the main debate, as she would if she were admitted.

She’ll get lots of stories such as this one, for instance, that mention the dispute. They’ll help build Fiorina’s name recognition. Right now only a little better than half of Republican voters know enough about her to form an opinion.

And she’ll likely be a center of attraction at the undercard. It’s true that the earlier debate isn’t likely to draw nearly the ratings of the later one – Fox’s August 6 event broke ratings records for a cable nonsports show. But the main event will include Donald Trump, who’s at the eye of a media hurricane wherever he goes. Better to be the star on a smaller stage, perhaps.

That’s what happened on August 6, points out Gallup Poll editor Frank Newport.

“It’s worth nothing that Fiorina’s placement in the second-tier 5:00 p.m. debate obviously didn’t hurt her,” Mr. Newport wrote earlier this month. “One might argue that it may have helped her if the smaller, less imposing group on stage with her made it easier for her to stand out.”

A deluge of media coverage after that event helped drive Fiorina’s name recognition up by 14 percentage points in a week, noted Newport. That’s a lot.

Of course, Mr. Trump probably has a name recognition level of 200 percent, if that’s possible. A generation yet unborn has probably already heard about who he is and formed an opinion about his chances. But Fiorina has to start somewhere. Slow and steady may win the race – or perhaps a vice president nomination nod, or cabinet appointment.

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