CNN criteria threaten Fiorina’s chance at main debate stage

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CNN’s criteria for its September GOP presidential debate may keep Carly Fiorina off the stage reserved for the top 10 candidates despite her recent surge in the polls.  

The CNN debate methodology, released earlier this year, weighs polls from July 16 to Sept. 10.  

{mosads}The use of the earlier surveys will hurt the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who barely registered in the polls before the Aug. 6 Fox News debate. But since then, she has seen a significant bounce.  

“It acts as sort of an anchor on those people who had done poorly early and a bit of a parachute for those people who have done well early,” said Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political scientist and former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. 

The criteria could also protect Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) from sliding out of the top 10 despite his recent dip in polls.

Fiorina received 1 percent support or less in most of the polls before the Fox News debate. After a strong performance at Fox’s second-tier debate, her numbers began to climb, jumping to 5 percent. campaign and supporters hope she can maintain polling numbers high enough to make CNN’s top 10. 

CNN, which declined to comment on its criteria and their potential impact on the field for this story, has said it would use polls from ABC/The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, CBS/The New York Times, CNN,  FOX, Gallup, Marist, McClatchy, Monmouth University,  NBC/The Wall Street Journal, Pew, Quinnipiac, USA Today and Time

The network also has other qualifications it is considering, including a candidate having paid staff in two of the four early-voting states.  

Based on calculations for the 11 qualifying polls that have been conducted since July 16 — two of which were conducted since the Fox News debate — the main debate stage would look the same as it did earlier this month. 

As with the Fox News debate, Govs. John Kasich (Ohio) and Chris Christie (N.J.) are tied for the last two spots, with 3.3 percent. 

At 1.6 percent, Fiorina would need to average 5 percent, her best performance to date, for 11 straight polls to rise above the two governors, as long as their percentages did not rise as well. 

Fiorina’s campaign did not return phone calls seeking a reaction to CNN’s methodology. 

Katie Hughes, communications director for the CARLY for America super-PAC supporting Fiorina’s campaign, said the initially low polling numbers were a symptom of the fact that Fiorina isn’t a career politician.

“Carly’s name ID is obviously very low, but one thing that we are seeing even from the very beginning is that the more people learn about Carly, the more people want her in the debates and the more people want her as their commander in chief,” she said.

Hughes added that the super-PAC, which cannot directly coordinate with the campaign, is confident Fiorina’s message will resonate and attract more supporters, but she admitted that the inclusion of older polls is “terrible.” 

“It’s definitely a concern when these polls are used and when the time period is certainly a factor,” she said. 

Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, told The Hill CNN’s methods will minimize the impact of momentum, especially late shifts in the weeks before the debate. 

“A campaign is a dynamic process by definition, you would want to take care of and account for the most current data,” said Traugott, who previously advised Gallup on its polling. 

Matt Barreto, a political scientist at UCLA and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, told The Hill that using more polls is a “really good idea,” but that CNN should be weighing polls differently based on methodology and current findings. Buzzfeed News reported Wednesday that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign will use Latino Decisions to poll Hispanics.

Praising CNN for including more polls, he lamented that the network is choosing not to weight those polls. “They’ve opened the door for that, but they are not executing,” he said.  

“Certainly, if they are giving equal weight to a poll from July 20 and from Sept. 4, that’s a little bit silly,  because the poll from Sept. 4 is the current pulse of Republican voters,” he said. 

Whether Fiorina would even have a chance to make up for earlier poll numbers is largely out of her control. She and other candidates are at the mercy of pollsters’ schedules, Barreto and other experts said.

It’s unclear how many qualifying polls will be released before CNN’s Sept. 10 deadline, and that number will directly affect each candidate’s standing.

More early polls making it into the final tally would have a negative impact on businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson more than any other candidates, while cushioning Gov. Scott Walker’s (Wis.) recent slide in the polls. But all of those candidates are already polling high enough that they’ve all essentially punched a ticket to the CNN main stage. 

A more even balance of early and later polls could boost Paul, who was in eighth place as of Wednesday. Through July, he regularly polled between 6 percent and 8 percent, but has dipped to as low as 3 percent since the Fox News debate. An average of the polls CNN will use shows Paul at 5.4 percent, almost 2 percentage points above Kasich and Christie.

“It acts as a drag. It gives a lot of weight to where they started instead of how they are doing more recently,” Zukin, of Rutgers University, said. 

But with more polls yet to come before the CNN debate, Fiorina still has a chance of making the main stage. A strong showing in the polls over the next three weeks could land her in the mix, particularly if either Christie or Kasich falter. 

But a failure to overcome her lackluster early polling would send her to CNN’s second-tier debate made up of the qualifying candidates outside of the top 10.  

To many polling experts, it emphasizes a danger of relying on polls to sort candidates who are running extremely close to one another. 

Zukin called the idea of determining rank by polling “perverted,” because polls this early in the election cycle are much more accurate at predicting tiers of candidates than at distinguishing between candidates polling at 2 percent and 3 percent. But he and others lament that polling may be one of the only unbiased ways to gauge the ever-shifting field. 

“It’s certainly a way for news organizations to make choices without their own judgment coming into play, which is a good thing,” he said. 

“Otherwise, you just have media organizations making the decision.”

Updated at 3 p.m.

Tags Carly Fiorina CNN debate Donald Trump Fox News debate Rand Paul
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