Is Carly Fiorina Better Off Being Left Out?

Despite her rise in the polls, the GOP contender still may not make it onto the main stage of the next debate. In an outsider’s campaign, that might not be a bad thing.

Carly Fiorina fields questions from the press following a presidential forum hosted by FOX News and Facebook, August 6, 2015.
Scott Olson AFP/Getty
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Russell Berman, The Atlantic
Aug. 27, 2015, 9:47 a.m.

Carly Fiorina’s strong performance in the B-list Republican debate, and an ensuing bump in the polls, quickly gave rise to a widespread assumption that the GOP’s lone woman candidate had earned her place alongside the top-tier contenders during the next primary debate.

That assumption, it turns out, was premature. Fiorina is once again at risk of being relegated to the undercard at the CNN-Reagan Library debate in September, but not because her momentum has already petered out. The former HP chief is holding at around seventh place in recent national polls (safely within the top 10 cut-off), and she’s in an even stronger position in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Her problem is that, according to its published criteria, CNN plans to use an average of qualifying polls from a full two months before the September debate, including several that were taken before the first debate, when Fiorina was polling around 1 percent. Therefore, unless she rises even faster in the next two weeks, or a bunch of new surveys come out right before the deadline, she is in danger of missing the cut.

Fiorina’s campaign is, predictably, protesting. “Despite being solidly in the top 10 by every measure, the political establishment is still rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage next month,” wrote Sarah Isgur Flores, her deputy campaign manager, in a polling analysis sent to reporters and posted on Medium on Wednesday.

But is Fiorina better off by being left out?

Yes, the main debate would give her an audience of millions more potential voters. And sure, a candidate can’t expect to break into the top tier without, at some point, competing against the party’s premier presidential hopefuls. And OK, fine, who in their right mind would want to waste an hour trying to fend off the charisma-sapping duo of George Pataki and Jim Gilmore when they could go toe-to-toe with His Excellency The Donald? (Don’t answer that.)

“Despite being solidly in the top 10 by every measure, the political establishment is still rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage next month.” 

The more serious argument is that if nothing else is clear this season, it’s that the outsiders are winning. There’s Trump, of course, who is somehow expanding his lead atop the polls despite all manner of impolitic remarks. Fiorina and Ben Carson have quietly moved up in recent weeks, and, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton a surprisingly strong challenge. Fiorina is not a natural candidate of grievance; her on-air style is measured and even-toned, and her strong delivery in the Fox News “Happy Hour” debate stood out on a stage of lesser communicators, probably much more so than if she was debating against the more soundbite-friendly Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie.

Yet the mere possibility of Fiorina’s unfair exclusion from the next GOP debate gives her an opportunity to play against two pillars of the establishment—the media and the Republican National Committee—in a manner that would be laughed off as a loser’s lament if she were still registering at 1 percent in the polls. In her missive on Wednesday, Flores mentioned the party “establishment” four times.

It will be interesting to see if CNN has no qualms excluding someone who is polling in the top five in Iowa and New Hampshire, in second place in multiple states, and well within the top 10 nationally. And it will be disappointing if Reince Priebus and the Republican establishment stand by and let a TV network keep Carly off the main stage…again.

Whether they say it publicly or not, it’s clear that the Republican National Committee would want to see Fiorina in the prime-time debate next month. There’s the obvious matter of wanting to promote their only major woman candidate after years of battling Democrats attacks of a GOP “war on women.” And in a field of so many candidates, there seems to be little point in creating debate-entry criteria that can’t adequately account for shifts in momentum over a month’s time. At the same time, the RNC would be wary of the awkwardness that would come if it bent the rules just to accommodate Fiorina.

So far, CNN is sticking by its criteria, which Priebus publicly backed when they were announced in May. “Federal Election Commission guidelines make it clear that these criteria cannot be changed after they have been published,” the network’s spokesperson said Wednesday. “We believe that our approach is a fair and effective way to deal with the highest number of candidates we have ever encountered.” (The RNC did not comment.)

Fiorina’s improved standing gives her a buffer if she does miss out on the main stage once more. She’d get a decent round of media attention (and surely, plenty of air time on Fox) just for being excluded. And if she simply maintains her standing, she’ll have a better chance of making the next debate, which will occur in late October, closer to when the voting actually starts. As Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry learned the hard way in 2012, surging in the polls is nice, but there’s such a thing as peaking too early.

None of this is to say Fiorina would—or should—reject an invitation to the CNN debate if she gets one. She shouldn’t, and she won’t. But in an outsider’s campaign, exclusion isn’t the worst thing—being kept out might just be the easiest way to stand out.

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