CNN’s new debate format is a vast improvement.

CNN’s New Debate Format Is Really Good for the GOP

CNN’s New Debate Format Is Really Good for the GOP

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 20 2015 5:36 PM

Bravo, CNN!

Seriously, the network’s new debate format should make the GOP race a lot more fair.

Chris Christie CNN.
Stuck at the kids’ table no more! Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the debates at the Reagan Library, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The end of October and beginning of November marked the best days that Chris Christie’s sluggish presidential campaign has had this year. A talk he gave about the need to empathize with addicts went viral and has been viewed, as of Friday, more than 8 million times. His McCain-like emphasis on holding town hall after town hall after town hall in New Hampshire, a format and a state for which he’s a natural fit, had begun to bear some fruit. A WBUR poll of New Hampshire Republicans released at the beginning of November showed him drawing a solid 8 percent of the vote, above the 2 to 5 percent at which he’d been stuck for the previous couple of months. More importantly, his once-dreadful favorability numbers were rising, suggesting that he would have more room to grow down the stretch.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

But on Nov. 5, just as this kinda, sorta Christie-mentum was building, the Fox Business Network announced that the New Jersey governor would be relegated for the first time to the kids’ table debate on Nov. 10, because he did not reach the requisite 2.5-percent threshold in national polls.

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This was the clearest example yet of the flaw in the model that networks had chosen to winnow the candidates into a manageable number. Christie had begun to do exactly what he needed to do—make gains in an early state, in the hope that an eventual victory there would propel him to victory elsewhere—but was being punished because his national polling remained poor. There is no national presidential primary day, so this was an utterly ridiculous turn of events.

The problems here are manifold and they should be obvious. It’s in candidates’ electoral interest to (a) perform strongly in New Hampshire and/or Iowa and (b) rely on debates for the broader purpose of building awareness. But if you spend all of your time going on cable news and performing other slapstick stunts in order to secure enough national attention just to get into the debates, then that cuts into the necessary work of building up an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire. In short: National polls are fun but also stupid and useless, and tethering debate participation to them is equally stupid and useless.

It took four debates for networks to finally understand the flaw in the model. CNN announced Friday that it would incorporate early state polling into its formula for inclusion in the Republican presidential debate being held in Las Vegas on Dec. 15. It took the network a second chance at a GOP debate, but CNN still deserves credit for being the first to figure out that this process was stupid and useless. The new system is also not some complex Bowl Championship Series–style supercomputer algorithm spitting out a random number that somehow represents a candidate’s chances. Instead you need either a certain bare minimum in national polls or another bare minimum in New Hampshire or Iowa. “Candidates,” CNN wrote, “must meet one of three criteria in polls conducted between October 29 and December 13 and recognized by CNN: An average of at least 3.5% nationally; at least 4% in Iowa; or at least 4% in New Hampshire.”

Three separate criteria does not mean that everyone gets in. “Right now,” the network added, “nine candidates would make cut for the [next debate]: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.”

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Now there are no excuses not to be on that stage. If your campaign shows any sign of life, this tripartite qualification system should detect it. Christie is nowhere in useless national polls and isn’t even contesting Iowa but is beginning to do well in New Hampshire. In! Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Mike Huckabee are stinking it up left, right, up, and down. Out! Comically enough, Bobby Jindal, who was at least registering a pulse in Iowa, would have been near the threshold for participation based on recent polls there. He could have been: in! But he already ended his campaign, so he is: out!

In other excellent news, Wolf Blitzer, a personality whose chunk of airtime only seems to increase the more obvious it becomes that he has no business being on television, will moderate the debate. It’s going to be sensational watching the candidates stomp all over him whenever he asks a question they don’t like or even a question they do like. CNN is just making all the right choices. Bravo!