- - Sunday, June 21, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Republican National Committee and the various networks recruited to co-host this cycle’s GOP presidential debates have been wrestling with ways to limit the number of candidates on the platform and have come up with a scheme that is neither fair nor sensible.

Fox News will limit the opening Cleveland debate on August 6 to the top 10 contenders chosen by averaging “the five most recent national polls with standard methodology techniques leading up to August 4.” This makes no sense. Candidates who should be focusing on early primary states instead will waste time and money chasing elusive national numbers to qualify for the first debate while others time their announcements to get a “bounce” within the polling window.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has already postponed his expected announcement until after the first debate even though it will be held in his own state, and other candidates are reportedly contemplating spending massive amounts on advertising to raise their poll numbers.

Apparently, different polls will be averaged to come up with the ranking; a current survey will count the same as an earlier one, and polls with different sample sizes count equally. The universe of voters from whom the polls’ samples will be drawn also may differ; some may poll registered Republicans, while others poll self-described Republicans, or draw samples from past or likely primary voters.

Other design decisions can affect outcome. Whether the polls simply test the names of the candidates or further identify them can make a difference.Ted Cruz will poll differently than “Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator,” and “former” senators and governors will be at a disadvantage as current officeholders usually poll slightly better.

A 15-candidate questionnaire would usually require candidate perception questions beforehand to “warm-up” the person being polled. Also helpful, 15 single-ballot questions — for example, “Are you open to voting for John Smith, or not?” — would further limit the undecided response for the cumbersome, and dispositive, subsequent full ballot question. With that long oral ballot, some voters will barely remember their choices, favoring the best known, like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush. Proper rotation of candidates in the long ballot question is crucial, yet insufficient for reliable numbers, given the size of the field.

Thus, we’re talking about averaging apples and oranges, national polls with varying sample sizes, methodology, and questionnaire designs. But even if one could fairly aggregate the five surveys, anarchy will still prevail for candidates at the bottom. A statistical error rate of plus or minus 2 percent or more could prove decisive to closely clustered low-end candidates, each currently polling only one or two percent. The margin of error could decide who will or won’t be included in the debate.

And then there are often important non-statistical errors that can affect the outcome. For example, insufficient cell phone numbers might under-represent younger Republicans or one or more of the surveys could be in the field while news events artificially skew results. Thus, a terrorist incident might help a more “hawkish” candidate.

A candidate’s viability depends on strategy, timing and other factors, not just volatile, embryonic national polling numbers. Voters attach more credibility to a debate than to advertising, and one’s debate performance can turn poll numbers.

The RNC and its co-hosts have it all wrong. Their “rules” might eliminate candidates with great potential by denying them a chance to connect, even hit a home run.

One of the early co-hosts, CNN, would relegate candidates who poll in the lower-tier to a second-class or junior varsity debate; a scenario sure to encourage those consigned to the jayvee debate to complain about party bosses,large donors, network elites, and manifest unfairness, to the detriment of the Republican brand.

There may be no perfect solution, but why not split the first debate into two, on two nights, by apportioning the candidates, for example, with candidates 1, 3, 5, 7 in one debate, and 2-4-6-8, in the other debate, with remaining candidates similarly apportioned?

The emphasis should not be on keeping candidates off the platform, but on developing sensible rules, finding competent and fair moderators, and recruiting serious and thoughtful panelists without the partisan and ideological bias that skewed the 2012 debates. Republicans need articulate and persuasive candidates who will avoid personal attacks and be given a chance to introduce their ideas to the public. Otherwise, repeated debates become little more than circular firing squads. The last thing the Republican party needs is a series of acrimonious debates that leave the party with a wounded nominee.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

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