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.