NEWARK, N.J. — Chris Christie could be bumped from the main stage at next week’s GOP presidential debate, and Bobby Jindal and George Pataki risk being left out altogether. They’re potential victims of poor showings in national polling and the way those surveys are being used.
Fox Business is to announce Thursday evening the candidates who will appear on stage in Milwaukee next Tuesday, a decision based on a selection of polls.
Should the line-ups change from the party’s earlier debates, it will further underscore concerns about the pivotal role such surveys have played in shaping the contest for the GOP nomination. Statistically, there is no significant difference between candidates lumped together near the bottom of the pack in national polls, which typically have a margin of error of 3 percentage points or more.
“I tell people, ‘Ignore the national polls and just follow those early states,'” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who argues early opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable. “Except that now national polls drive the debates, and debates drive the polling.”
According to debate criteria issued by Fox last week, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent major polls conducted through Nov. 4 to be featured in the prime-time debate.
After a Fox poll released Wednesday evening, Christie’s average stood at 2.25 percent in recent surveys that the network says meet its criteria. The exact polls that will be used to determine who makes the cut have not been announced, however, giving the network some flexibility in shaping the field.
Getting booted to the debate undercard earlier in the evening would be a major blow for the New Jersey governor, whose struggling campaign has appeared to be on the cusp of an upswing following strong debate performances and good reviews from New Hampshire, where he’s been spending much of his time.
Christie also appears to have struck a nerve with a video on the pain of drug addiction that has been viewed more than 5 million times. While Christie has told the story of a law school friend’s deadly addiction to prescription painkillers dozens of times at town hall events, the video’s popularity underscores the unpredictable nature of a crowded race in which minor slip-ups or breakthrough moments can quickly change a candidate’s prospects.
During an appearance on Fox News Thursday morning, Christie seemed resigned to the fact that he might be forced into an earlier match-up that has been derisively referred to at times as the “kiddie table.”
“Listen, the bottom line is that you need to be on a stage and debating. And so I will be on a stage debating one way or the other, wherever they put me,” Christie said calmly. “You want to put one in the middle of the square in Manchester, I’ll do it there. People need to hear our voice and our ideas.”
Also at risk of being shut out are Jindal, Louisiana’s governor, and Pataki, the former New York governor, who are dangerously close to failing to reach the 1 percent threshold for the undercard debate. Jindal is well above 1 percent in Iowa, as is Pataki in New Hampshire, but their standing in those early states has played no role in the selection criteria.
“We know that at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a national primary, so national primary polls mean nothing,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Steve Duprey, chairman of the Republican National Committee’s debate subcommittee, has been frustrated that debate criteria used by TV networks have ignored candidates’ standing in early voting states where they spend most of their time.
“It’s been unfortunate,” said Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire. “When you do debates based on national polls, it undermines the ability of a lesser-known, lesser-funded candidate to get traction.”
He suggested that former President Bill Clinton or 2008 GOP nominee John McCain could have struggled to emerge under the current system. “This is all new territory,” Duprey said.
At this time in 2007, polls showed that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was far ahead of his closest challenger with the eventual nominee, John McCain in third. And Hillary Rodham Clinton was leading then-Sen. Barack Obama by about 20 points.
The Republican National Committee, which coordinated many of the debate logistics, has been challenged by campaigns looking for more control.
Some lower-tier campaigns have been pushing aggressively for two debates featuring major candidates with each lineup determined at random. While networks have the flexibility to change their formats, such a scenario remains unlikely. More likely, according to campaigns involved in debate discussions, is that the undercard debate will be eliminated altogether as early as the GOP’s December debate.