All eyes are on Fox News with five days to go before the first Republican presidential debate.
The clash is set for Thursday in Cleveland, but the network has left much unsaid so far.
The polling issue is only one of the topics that are attracting intense attention from campaign operatives and political observers.
Among the details that people are obsessing over: the positioning of the candidates on the stage, with the beneficial center podiums typically given to the highest-polling candidates while those further down are confined to its edges; the question of whether serious efforts will be made to ensure all candidates get equal airtime; and the broader issue of how the three moderators will exercise some control over an encounter that, on paper, looks like it could teeter on the precipice of chaos.
When the businessman entered the race on June 16, skeptics thought he would struggle to make the debate stage at all. Instead, he will be its focal point, not only because of his braggadocio but because he is leading in many national polls.
Primary debates do not have the arduously-negotiated conditions that apply to general election debates. Much is up in the air.
“The network has much more control in a primary debate — and even more so in this case because of the winnowing [of candidates],” said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri.
“If the line of questioning is to allow each candidate who has been attacked by Donald Trump the chance to respond, that could take the whole two hours,” he quipped. “The build-up to this is quite enormous in terms of giving us a reason to tune in. But for candidates, is it a sensible approach to snipe at one another or to be the most bombastic?”
Veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black, who served as senior political adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, is among those who believe the encounter may not be so explosive or anarchic as some predict.
“If [Trump] or anybody else violates the rules, it will hurt them,” he said. “I’ve been focus-grouping these things for many years and people don’t like it when you keep breaking the rules. You don’t want their one thought afterward to be, ‘Yeah, he kept going over the time limit.’ ”
On equal airtime, Fox News has said candidates will get 60 seconds to answer a questions. If a candidate mentions an opponent, that opponent will get 30 seconds to respond.
The one rule that matters above all, of course, is who will be in the main debate. The criteria stipulate that the candidates included will be those who place “in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls,” with a cut-off time of 5 p.m. Tuesday.
But unlike CNN, which will host the second debate in September, Fox has never released a list of the polling organizations that it considers valid in calculating this average. It has merely stated that the polls should be conducted by “major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.”
The uncertainty has stirred intrigue. New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman — the author of a critical unauthorized biography of Fox News supremo Roger Ailes — reported Thursday that advisers to candidates who are on the bubble between inclusion and exclusion, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “have taken to lobbying Ailes and Fox executives to use polls that put their guy over the line.”
Asked for comment on the debate and on the polls that will determine candidates’ inclusion, a Fox News spokeswoman referred The Hill to previously published remarks by the network’s executive vice president of news, Michael Clemente.
In early July, Clemente gave a statement to Bloomberg noting that “national polls are the traditional, time-tested yardstick by which presidential hopefuls have long been measured,” also insisting that “we will use a range of quality polls” and that “we have already made clear we won’t use partisan and online polls."
There is also widespread sympathy for the conundrum Fox faces, given the huge size of this year’s field. Virtually no-one believes that a debate featuring all 17 prominent candidates would be workable on a practical level.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who will almost certainly be relegated to the “minor league” event has previously complained that the process is “arbitrary” and that an alternative would have been to have two debates with equal billing, with the participants selected at random.
But among Republican consultants who are unaffiliated with a candidate, there is no great discontent with Fox’s methods.
“I don’t think many conservatives are taking issue with Fox News because it looks like they’re just doing the best they can,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. “The fact that they have allowed two platforms is extremely generous. They could just have said, ‘One platform for 10 candidates.’ ”
Black asserted that being confined to the earlier debate would not necessarily be disastrous for a candidate.
“People are going to be interested. A 5 o’clock slot on Fox is a very healthy audience,” he said.
Some observers even suggest that the earlier encounter, though undoubtedly less prestigious, could be more substantive than the later debate, where Trump’s antics could take over.
According to Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, the later debate “threatens to be something of a free-for-all, not necessarily very coherent. Unless Fox has some method in mind to impose some order, it could be not-very-helpful [to voters].”
Still, all the uncertainty and speculation fuels one hope that Fox will he happy to entertain: The network could score a big ratings win.
“Most people who are paying any attention to the campaign at this point will be glued to the TV,” Bonjean predicted.
- Updated at 4:48 p.m.