Peg the Primary Debate Invites to Facebook Fans, Not Polls

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 6 2011 9:26 AM

Peg the Primary Debate Invites to Facebook Fans, Not Polls

The next Republican primary debate is happening in one week. Gary Johnson won't be attending it. He wasn't invited; he wasn't polling high enough . He got Mike Gravel'd. (So did Buddy Roemer, but I'm betting you are opening up another window and googling who he is. He's a former governor of Louisiana.)

Is there a good way of organizing debates so that legitimate candidates make it in and kooks don't? It's tricky. You can't invite people who attain ballot status or pay filing fees, because dozens of idiots and self-promoters do that in states like New Hampshire. Some of them are adept only at getting arrested . You can invite people based on poll numbers, as the Commission on Presidential Debates does, but how fair is that if it excludes people with real campaigns and real political experience? A poll of 500 people in New Hampshire, in which only one or two people pick Gary Johnson, does not reveal that there's no support or potential support for Gary Johnson. It reveals that only one or two people out of 500 have decided they like him.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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A suggestion: Debate organizers should base their criteria on Facebook fan pages. Hear me out. A really comprehensive national poll might survey 2000 people. A good state poll might survey 500 people. According to an EMarketer report this year, 42.3 percent of Americans check into Facebook. Conservatively speaking, more than 100 million Americans use it. That's a fairly large sample size. Every candidate has a Facebook page; every candidate tells supporters to go there and join up. Tea Party groups tell members to join, too. It's all self-selected, so it's not as statistically valid as a poll. But it's a pretty good measure of enthusiasm for candidates. Each supporter is a human who's engaged in politics. How do the 2012ers do? Here's the current, 9:25 a.m. snapshot of their fan totals.

Sarah Palin - 3,096,615

Mitt Romney - 947,131

Ron Paul - 383,995

Michele Bachmann - 186,598

Newt Gingrich - 139,075

Herman Cain - 128,164

Gary Johnson - 119,808

Tim Pawlenty - 98,167

Rick Santorum - 18,118

Jon Huntsman - 3,294

Buddy Roemer - 1,575

And that fringe candidate who keeps getting arrested, Robert Haines, is at 108 . What's a good Facebook fan cut-off? I'd leave that up to some unaccountable bureaucrats at a news network or university, but mine might be 10,000, with a rider that precludes candidates from getting in via obvious stunts. (No mass campaign to get John Linnell or Henry the Angry Dwarf into a debate.) That would leave every fringe candidate out of the next debate, and it would, for now, exclude Huntsman and Roemer. And that's fair. There's no sign of Roemer catching on in any way, and Huntsman hasn't really geared up yet.

I'll leave it to someone else to argue the the number of questions at each debate should be determined by the candidates' number of Twitter followers.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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