GOP’s top 10: Who's making the debate cut

The unlucky number for Republican presidential candidates in this election cycle is not 13. It’s 11. 

Whoever falls into that position in the national polling averages will be excluded from the first two GOP debates of this cycle, making it much harder to be seen as a credible contender.

By contrast, whoever squeezes into 10th place will have a podium reserved for them on the main stage and a bigger chance of making a breakthrough.

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If the debates were held right now, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry would be the lucky 10th person — though just by the skin of his teeth. 

Perry’s average showing across the most recent five nationwide polls, excluding one from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, is 2.4 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich both average 1.6 percent and would be forced to sit out the debates.

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina would also miss the cut as things stand, with her average of 1.4 percent support. That would leave the GOP with 10 men on the stage, an image party leaders might want to avoid.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamVulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ Ex-UN ambassador John Bolton: Trump should take back NATO remarks MORE (R-S.C.) would also miss the threshold. His current average is 0.6 percent, though he has a reasonable expectation of improving, because the five polls in question were all taken before his official campaign launch.

The 10 Republican candidates who would be included as of now are, in descending order of average poll rating: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBudowsky: Why Warren masters Trump Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ Five ways Trump’s convention was a success MORE (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, retired neurologist Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sens. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat to watch for on Day 2 at the GOP convention Cyber squatters sitting on valuable VP web addresses Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (Ky.) and Ted CruzTed CruzWalker jabs at Kasich for snubbing GOP convention Trump: Cruz is 'lucky' that I walked in on his speech Kasich leaves door open to Trump endorsement MORE (Texas), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocratic National Committee chairwoman will resign after convention Voters have a stark choice in money in politics reform Trump: Sanders turning out to be 'weak, pathetic' MORE and Perry.

Cleveland will be the venue for the first GOP debate of this cycle, televised by Fox News and scheduled for Aug. 6. The second encounter does not take place until Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The second debate will be televised by CNN.

“If you’re left out of two or three debates, and let’s say you’re Bobby Jindal, a governor in office, or Rick Perry, the former governor of the biggest Republican state in the country. … Well, then you’re viewed as a second-tier candidate, and it is much harder to get support or to raise money,” noted Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist.

 “Or you could have Gov. Kasich, who has had an extraordinary run in Ohio, left out of the debate in Cleveland,” he added.

It’s more than the basic rules that are jangling nerves.

CNN has decided to host a de facto second-tier debate on the same night as the main one. Candidates who did not make the top 10 would still make the undercard event, so long as they were averaging 1 percent or more in three national polls and fulfilled some other criteria. 

A CNN representative confirmed that the outsiders’ debate will not be confined to online-only coverage. “Both segments will be televised live on the [sic] CNN,” the representative said.

This has provoked concern among GOP strategists that fringe candidates could make the smaller debate something of a freak show.

Dan Judy, a Republican strategist whose firm, North Star Opinion Research, is affiliated with the Rubio campaign, compares CNN’s decision to “having a big boys’ table and a kids’ table.” 

“As a Republican, I do not want the focus the day after to be what happened at the kids’ table — the food that got smeared on the walls and the drinks that got spilled — rather than the gourmet fare on offer at the adults’ table,” he said.

It has been clear for months that this year’s Republican field would be exceptionally large and would pose considerable challenges, both to the TV networks and party bigwigs. In the end, Fox and CNN released slightly different criteria for inclusion in their debates.

In Fox’s case, candidates must “place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by FOX News leading up to August 4th at 5PM/ET.” The network did not indicate which polls it would recognize. 

In the case of CNN, candidates must be in the top 10 “from an average of all qualifying polls released between July 16 and September 10.” CNN did include a lengthy list of polls that would be eligible. The network also stipulated, among other criteria, that candidates must have at least one paid campaign aide working in two of the four early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Candidates who are on the cusp of inclusion have reacted in different ways. Asked for comments for this story, the Fiorina campaign directed The Hill to two tweets, one from the candidate and the other from deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores. Both projected optimism that the former Hewlett-Packard CEO would be “making the cut,” in the words of her own tweet. 

In an interview last month with National Journal, Santorum complained, “it’s arbitrary, someone at 1.15 is in, someone at 1.14 is out — [and] that to me is not a rational way” to decide the matter.

Some experts believe the dynamics will make it more likely that candidates focus on getting national coverage, whether by appearing on TV or by broadcasting ads, rather than concentrating on their standing in the early states.

“The candidates will need to spend big,” said Princeton University’s Julian Zelizer.

Zelizer also contended that the rules will lead to early attack ads meant to kick rivals off stage. Others argued candidates are likely to adopt different tactics to get into the top 10.

Judy cited as one example Fiorina’s decision to turn up at public events held by Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocratic National Committee chairwoman will resign after convention Top DNC official calls for shake-up in wake of email scandal Voters have a stark choice in money in politics reform MORE.

“That’s the kind of creative thinking that I think is likely to have an impact,” he said.