Network leaves candidates hanging on debate standing

Fox Business Network is the latest network to be criticized for how it decides who will be on the primetime presidential debate stage.
The network’s more restrictive criteria has already made clear that it’s likely to thin the number of candidates who will be on the all-important main stage.
But its decision not to divulge which polls will be used leaves candidates on the bubble uncertain of whether they’ll be on the main stage or relegate to the earlier debate. And it comes during an election cycle when various networks have been criticized for waffling on debate criteria as well whether the media at large has too much power in the debate process. 

“When you get to a situation where you look like you are trying to hide the ball to the last minute, that’s problematic,” former Republican National Committee chairman and MSNBC analyst Michael Steele told The Hill.


“I get that in terms of wanting the bling of the ratings, having people tune in at a certain place at a certain time to see who is on the stage… That to me undermines the process. It shouldn’t be about that.” 

The candidates facing a potential relegation to the undercard debate—Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate MORE, Carly FIorina, and to a lesser extent John Kasich—will only have guesswork until Monday night. That’s when the network will announce the lineup on national television, and the campaigns will find out the same time as everyone else. 

The criteria allows for three avenues to make the main stage—finishing in the top six in national polls, or the top five in polls from Iowa or New Hampshire. The network has said it will average the five most recent polls “conducted by major nationally and state recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.”  

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzQuinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas China could cut our access to critical minerals at any time — here's why we need to act The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base MORE, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioBipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Trump's new interest in water resources — why now? Senate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference MORE, Ben Carson, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush will likely hold the top spots in national polling. 

It’s a similar story for the top slots in both Iowa and New Hampshire, except Kasich currently sits in fifth in New Hampshire, less than 2 points ahead of Bush, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, which includes polls the network may not use.

Barring a major upset in the polls this weekend, Kasich’s Granite State standing will likely protect him from a slide off the main stage, while Fiorina and Paul will likely fall down to the undercard. 

But while other networks including CNN and NBC properties release the polling universe that will be recognized, telling campaigns up front exactly what it will take to make the main stage, Fox Business has not. Depending on which polls are deemed in line with the criteria, especially with state polling that has not been as thoroughly vetted, the choice could potentially have an impact. 

There have already been surprises that fundamentally shook up the race. For November’s debate, Fox Business chose to include a national poll from Investor’s Business Daily, a group that had not been used by other debate networks to calculate averages. That poll knocked Mike Huckabee and Christie to drop off the main stage. 

The inclusion of that poll also kept out Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHarrison says campaign had to spend record M haul 'to get this thing to toss-up status' BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by the Walton Family Foundation — Sights and sounds outside the Amy Coney Barrett vote MORE, who failed to register in each of the four recent polls. But if IBD had been skipped, he might have made the main stage, as he scored 2 percent in the next-most-recent CBS/New York Times poll. 

Fox Business Network told The Hill that it doesn't specifically name the polls in advance because there's no way to figure out which polls will be available by the deadline. The network believes that waiting allows it to give a fair look at the entire picture before announcing the field. 

While some campaigns note frustration with being kept in the dark, aides say the frustration isn’t solely directed at Fox. 

“If it were clear what the rules were and that folks would stick to them, the Fox situation would be different, because you have no idea what polls they are going to use,” Christian Ferry, the former campaign manager for Graham’s now defunct presidential campaign, told The Hill. 

“But what we’ve seen from this entire process, there are no rules and its 100 percent in the hands of the media to make the determination who they are going to place on what stage.” 

One Republican veteran of a previous presidential campaign defended the network, noting that he likely wouldn’t publish the polls ahead of time either to avoid potential criticism. 

“If you are on the bubble it’s always your concern, but part of it is not being on the bubble,” he said. 

“It is worrisome for the campaigns, but its one of these things that you have to just control what you can control. And what you can control is doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire.” 

An aide to a candidate who has appeared on the main stage noted that CNN has changed its criteria two separate times during its two debates to allow Fiorina and then Paul to remain on the same stage. Neither Fox News nor Fox Business has amended the full criteria once it had been announced. 

“As much as Fox doesn’t disclose it, it’s not incredibly different. It’s certainly reassuring when you can know [where a candidate stands], but even then, things change,” the aide said. 

“Fox at one point used some control to narrow the stage a bit, but in CNN’s case, it chose to expand the field with the same power. Expanding the stage hurts the other candidates…and it hurts the field because it doesn’t allow the field to narrow.” 

For the November debate, all of the polls the network used came out within the week prior to the cutoff.

Ferry, Steele and the current campaign aide argued that the Republican National Committee should have asserted more control in the process to take the power out of the hands of the media. 

The RNC did not comment on that contention. But officials have noted during past controversies that election law mandates decisions about debate criteria rest solely with the networks. 

Steele called the criteria concerns an example of a lack of separation between politics and the media, and said that if election law is a barrier to that separation, it should be changed. 

“Right now, you have a conflating of the two in which the media is now making what are ostensibly political decisions,” he added. 

“And that to me is a very dangerous thing.”

- Updated at 12:05 p.m.