What to do about the opening GOP presidential debate

In August, Fox News will hold the first debate among candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. To be more accurate, Fox News will hold a debate among ten of the candidates seeking the GOP nomination.

At least five candidates will be excluded. Among them might be the highly popular governor of Ohio, who once held a leadership position in the U.S. House of Representatives; the runner-up for the GOP nomination in 2012, who once held leadership positions in both the House and the Senate; one of the most influential (albeit obnoxious) current members of the Senate, who ranks among the GOP’s leading foreign policy experts; and the only female in the field.

How will Fox News decide who is out and who is in? It will rely on polling data. The ten with the best national numbers as the debate approaches will participate.

This is an objective test, but not a satisfactory one. The differences towards the bottom end of the poll rankings are likely to be quite small. Right now, the RCP average has Rick Perry in tenth place with 3 percent. Just behind him are John Kasich and Rick Santorum at 2 percent and Carly Fiorina at 1.8.

Excluding Kasich, Santorum, and Fiorina based on these numbers is arbitrary enough. But suppose Donald Trump, currently in ninth place, falls off and Kasich, Santorum and Fiorina remain virtually tied. Excluding two of the three will then be absurd.

Fox News believes that a debate with 13 to 15 candidates would be too unwieldy. And Fox News is right. So what’s the alternative to using an objective test to cut the field to ten? Fox News contemplates holding an afternoon forum for candidates who attain at least 1 percent support in the national poll average.

But this “jayvee event” isn’t good enough. As Ian Tuttle says, Fox would still be “putting its thumb on the scales by determining a priori who’s in and who’s out of the first prime time event of the campaign season.”

Tuttle has a better idea:

[I]f Fox is willing to give up airtime to the candidates below the threshold, why not just go all the way toward what seems (to this observer, at least) the obvious solution: Host a two-night debate, or a one-night debate in two parts, that includes every announced candidate.

And to make the matchups fair, divide the candidates by lottery: Put all 16 or 18 or however many names in a stovepipe hat; the first half pulled are in Night/Hour One, the second half are in Night/Hour Two.

To be sure, this would almost certainly mean that some of the top tier candidates would be unable to debate others. But, as Tuttle observes, there are nine debates scheduled — more than enough to produce any “clash of the titans.”

The publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader complains: “Fox boasts that it will ‘winnow’ the field of candidates before New Hampshire gets to do so.” I have no problem with pre-New Hampshire winnowing — this inflated field could use it.

But winnowing should follow debates in which everyone has a fair chance to be heard. Otherwise, Fox News is making the call, not an informed electorate.