How the New Republican Debate Criteria Will Change the Way Candidates Campaign

It shakes up the tactics for 2016 contenders on the polling fringe.

Rebecca Nelson
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Rebecca Nelson
May 21, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

The price of entry for the GOP primary de­bates is chan­ging. And the cam­paign tac­tics will fol­low the lead.

The long-pondered ques­tion of how Re­pub­lic­ans will win­now down their massive primary field was par­tially answered Wed­nes­day, when Fox News, the host of the first GOP de­bate, an­nounced it would lim­it the de­bate stage to 10 can­did­ates. Those top can­did­ates will be de­cided, the cable news gi­ant said, based on the av­er­age of “the five most re­cent na­tion­al polls, as re­cog­nized by Fox News.”

For Carly Fior­ina, Bobby Jin­dal, Lind­sey Gra­ham, and oth­ers who wouldn’t make the cut if the de­bate were held today—plus those on the edges of the mar­gin—the news will likely be the cata­lyst for a re­dir­ec­tion in how they cam­paign.

In elec­tion cycles past, can­did­ates like these—who barely re­gister in most polls—used the guar­an­teed lime­light of the de­bate stage to boost their pro­files. Throughout the sun­dry 2012 de­bates, un­likely can­did­ate Newt Gin­grich cap­it­al­ized on his prime­time mega­phone to bel­li­ger­ent, out­rageous ef­fect, grabbing the na­tion’s at­ten­tion and stay­ing afloat in the race. With that lux­ury no longer as­sured, the fight for name re­cog­ni­tion and na­tion­al at­ten­tion will define the cam­paign theat­er much earli­er on.

Rick Wilson, a long­time GOP strategist, says the de­bate qual­i­fic­a­tions will put “a premi­um on en­han­cing and ex­pand­ing the repu­ta­tion earli­er.”

That will hap­pen, he says, through “a great­er re­li­ance on so­cial me­dia, and at­tempt­ing to mi­crotar­get and to game the sys­tem a little bit to bump up name ID,” as well as a fo­cus on me­dia ap­pear­ances: “You’re go­ing to see these guys do­ing more press, do­ing more in­ter­views, mak­ing the Fox cir­cuit in par­tic­u­lar to drive up their name ID among Re­pub­lic­an voters.”

But that doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily mean voters in tra­di­tion­al early tar­gets, such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Be­cause the Fox de­bate par­ti­cipants will be de­cided on na­tion­al polling, fringe can­did­ates may not spend as many re­sources on those niche audi­ences, and fo­cus in­stead on na­tion­al me­dia op­por­tun­it­ies.

“It is bad news for voters in Iowa and New Hamp­shire and good news for book­ers on cable net­works,” says one vet­er­an GOP strategist who spoke on back­ground be­cause he will likely be join­ing a 2016 cam­paign. “It cer­tainly in­centiv­izes you to do as many na­tion­al in­ter­views as you can.”

An­oth­er pos­sible tac­tic takes the op­pos­ite ap­proach: pump­ing more money in­to those early states.

“To try and have an im­pact on the na­tion­al cam­paign at this point is very dif­fi­cult,” says Ed Rollins, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist who ran the first part of Michele Bach­mann’s 2012 cam­paign. Iowa and New Hamp­shire, on the oth­er hand, are more man­age­able—and do­ing well there could lead to a dom­ino ef­fect na­tion­ally. “They’re smal­ler states where you can move num­bers. All the re­port­ers are fol­low­ing those states closely. If all of a sud­den you’ve moved in­to second or third or fourth place in Iowa, there’d be a buzz about you, and you’d start pick­ing up in oth­er polls.”

Rollins or­ches­trated the bump in the polls that Bach­mann, her­self a peri­pher­al con­tender, briefly en­joyed in the run-up to the 2012 elec­tion. He cred­its it to the cam­paign’s mil­lion-dol­lar spend­ing on the Iowa Straw Poll, which Bach­mann ended up win­ning.

“If she would’ve come in sixth or sev­enth in the straw poll, she nev­er would’ve been a factor. What we got for her, by win­ning the straw poll, she was on five Sunday tele­vi­sion shows,” Rollins says. “It launched her, and she was looked at as a ser­i­ous can­did­ate.”

Some GOP brass fear that the lim­its on who can join the de­bate—en­acted to keep the tele­vised event from be­com­ing a me­dia cir­cus—will in­stead en­cour­age can­did­ates to find cre­at­ive ways to garner broad­er at­ten­tion.

“You can find some sort of tac­tic or piece of per­form­ance art that is out­rageous and maybe drives people to you for a peri­od of time so you can cross the bar to get in­to the first de­bate,” long­time GOP strategist Tom Rath pos­its. Though he’s skep­tic­al of that gam­bit’s long-term vi­ab­il­ity, he thinks some can­did­ates des­per­ate to re­gister in the polls could try it.

The big­ger prob­lem, Wilson says, is the per­form­ance art that likely will make the top 10 cut: Don­ald Trump. The real es­tate mogul openly flir­ted with the pro­spect of run­ning in 2012, and has kept up the mys­tique again this cycle, speak­ing at Feb­ru­ary’s Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence amid fans eager to shake his hand or at least nab a selfie. In one av­er­age of the past five na­tion­al polls, his 2.2 per­cent earns him tenth place, just mak­ing the list. But while the bil­lion­aire host of The Ap­pren­tice has talked a lot about get­ting in the race over the years, he’s nev­er ac­tu­ally de­clared his can­did­acy with the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

“If Don­ald Trump files pa­pers, he’s go­ing to be in these de­bates,” Wilson says. “That’s the big glar­ing bug in the soft­ware.”

That could de­rail the de­bate, he says, turn­ing it “in­to a cir­cus”—ex­actly what the entry cri­ter­ia were in­ten­ded to avoid.

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