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After many years of false starts, Donald Trump formally leaped into the 2016 presidential race on Tuesday. While it’s hard to take Trump seriously as a presidential candidate, there is no denying that he has one rather large advantage: Access to the coveted televised primary debates.
As of now, Trump would beat out half a dozen other candidates for a spot in the first debate on August 6th in Cleveland hosted by Fox News. The criterion to make the debate stage is to register in the top ten in national polls among a Republican field that could top 16 or more candidates. And that is forcing candidates in the bottom tier to reassess their campaign strategy.
Candidates currently trailing Trump in national polling include the runner up in the 2012 Republican primary and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; Former Hewlett-Packard head Carly Fiorina, Ohio Governor John Kasich and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
The words “national polls” are critical. While candidates are spending time, money and resources in up to four early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to win contests that play an essential role in who wins the nomination, they now must be concerned with what poll respondents in California or New York, who aren’t yet engaged in the campaign or seeing candidates visit their town every week, think.
Critics of the debate standard say that it jeopardizes the legitimacy of the primary process.
“When we insisted that national polling numbers become a determinate, it destroys that early state process,” an operative close to Graham’s campaign said. “That’s problematic.”
What it really does is it forces candidates at the bottom of the pack who often have far fewer resources to chose between running a national campaign to make the debate stage, ignore the national polls and focus on the primary states or a hybrid of the two. None of them are good choices for candidates striving for stature.
The Graham-associated operative admitted that the debate structure is forcing the campaign to “think differently” about how it will run its campaign.
“For every candidate, being in the debate is a sign that you are a credible candidate, and that’s not just for Lindsey graham - that’s for everyone,” he said.
Sarah Isgur Flores, deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina, said that their strategy of focusing on the early primary states is not going to change.
“At the end of the day, the debate matters; so does winning the caucuses or the primary, and we’re not going to forego one for the other.”
Fiorina, however, has made more than a dozen trips to states, including New York and California, that don't vote early in the primary process.
Debates do matter. In the 2012 election, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s campaign was derailed after bad debate performances. Meanwhile, no-name candidate Herman Cain experienced momentum after witty one-liners and sharp responses on the debate stage.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who rose in the polls during the early stages of the Democratic primary process in the 2004 election, also saw success on the debate stage. In an interview he said that while he was gaining traction with his avant garde campaign on the internet, it wasn't until the debates that his candidacy started to take off.
Debates "are extremely important. I can understand why the candidates at the bottom of the pack are so concerned," Dean said. "They helped me enormously."
Dean noted that debates are even more important for lesser known candidates. The candidates who already have high name recognition have less to gain from the debates while an unknown quantity can gain legitimacy and support.
Trump registers relatively well in the national polls because he’s a well-known quantity. He’s the only one with his own television series on prime-time, broadcast television. Results of national polls this early in the race is often based on name recognition.
“He’s a reality TV star,” the Graham operative said. “That’s the problem. What’s more important -campaigning and proving you metal or being a national celebrity?”
While Trump is ranking around 9th in national polls among 15 or 16 candidates, he is also by far the most unpopular. In the last Fox News poll from June 2, 59 percent of respondents said they would never vote for Trump. The next least popular candidate was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for whom 37 percent of respondents said they’d never vote.
Dean said that he would advise the bottom of the rank Republicans not to re-calibrate their campaign from focusing on the primary states to performing well in national polls but to band together and participate in a separate televised debate.
"Someone will host it," he insisted, adding that the candidates at the bottom of the pack have political experience. "These are reasonably experienced people who are going to put on a good show."
Candidates at risk of missing the mark have written letters and are trying to persuade Fox News and the Republican National Committee to change the requirements. The only thing that has resulted in any response is a threat by the New Hampshire Union-Ledger newspaper to hold its own, inclusive forum at the same time. Fox responded saying it would hold a second debate in the afternoon prior to the prime-time showing for the candidates who don’t make the cut.
Sen. Graham’s campaign said that fix is not good enough.
“We … maintain our position that criteria using national polling to determine participation is contradictory to our long standing and effective early state primary process. We hope media outlets and the RNC (Republican National Committee) will heed the advice of the early state leaders and revise their debate criteria,” Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement.
The most unpopular candidate who is barely taken seriously in presidential politics could very well stand on the debate stage.