The Anti-Gary Johnson Rule

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 25 2011 1:34 PM

The Anti-Gary Johnson Rule

Great catch here by Katrina Trinko. This is how Politico and MSNBC lay out the rules for inclusion in the September 7 debate at the Reagan library, for "all Republicans who have a reasonable prospect of becoming the GOP nominee and who have demonstrated that they are in a credible position to be a principal competitor in the early stages of the nominating contest."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

A candidate must demonstrate that he/she has registered at least four percent (4%) support as the preferred nominee among Republicans in a methodologically sound and recognized national poll conducted by one of the following survey organizations since the November 2010 elections: Gallup, Bloomberg, NBC/WSJ, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/The New York Times, CNN, FOX and Associated Press.
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Let's leave aside the fact that the GOP nominee is not chosen in a national election. He has to fight for a plurality of caucus-goers in Iowa. Then he has to try to win a primary in New Hampshire. Then he has to shell out for GOTV in another caucus, in Nevada. And so on. Using a national poll for this process makes no sense.

But, okay, fine, we're using a national poll. By this standard, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul should all make it in -- they regularly poll higher than 4 percent. The Reagan Library debate also includes Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum, while excluding Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, and Thaddeus McCotter. That's odd: According to the last Gallup poll, none of those candidates break 4 percent. Aha -- NBC doesn't say they have to be recent! So Gingrich, who's collapsed, and who no reporter would say "in a credible position to be a principal competitor," can count the recent polls that have him over 4 percent. Santorum can count a Gallup poll from two months and three weeks ago, even though that poll didn't include Perry and did include Tim Pawlenty -- it took a snapshot of a fundamentally different election, one in which Santorum had more of a dark horse's shot in Iowa. Huntsman can count the CNN poll from earlier this month that put him at 4 percent, even though that poll included Giuliani and Palin, who aren't actually in the race.

The effect of all this: Johnson and Roemer, both former governors, and McCotter, a fairly interesting gadfly candidate, are denied free media coverage. They're saddled with an extra fringe burden -- surely, the undecided voter thinks, this candidate must be a little nuts if he's never in debates. Hey, he's not in the debates because he didn't score high enough in a poll of an electorate that isn't actually going to pick the nominee!

UPDATE: I talked to Politico's Charlie Mahtesian about the debate standards.

"We looked at the way past debates were organized," he said. "We wanted to provide a meaningful threshold of candidates that had a significant presence and infrastructure. But at the same time, we wanted to capture some candidates who had some traction, but weren't at the same level. That rough figure of 4 percent, if you go back and apply it to any race, captures candidates who fit those criteria. Five percent would have been too high."

So why a policy that left out Johnson and Roemer?

"It's an inexact science," said Mahtesian. "I'm not speaking to any of their campaigns, particularly; they just fell short of what we felt was a viable and significant threshold. it's not any one candidacy -- it's looking at a lot of national polls. Look, you can't avoid that kind of discussion about which campaigns were and weren't included. it's part for the course."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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