Two months ago, the president of Burundi put down an attempted military coup, leaving the central African nation in bloody chaos. For much of human history, such violence has been part and parcel of the transfer of executive power. Which is why the fact that some Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency will have to go on national television at 5 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. in today’s debates, sponsored by Fox News and Facebook, hardly seems like the electoral disaster that critics are making it out to be.
Fox certainly deserves flak for not describing exactly how it selected the prime-time candidates, not to mention for profiting from the national advertising blitzes that its cutoff produced. Sure, only 10 “first-tier” candidates will take the stage tonight in Cleveland — but the road to the White House is paved with bottlenecks and somewhat arbitrary points of exclusion. And if you’re incensed that the governor of Louisiana, the former governor of Texas, a former Fortune 500 CEO and a three-term U.S. senator will have to sit at the “kiddie table” — well, brace yourself, because that’s just the start of the indignities this election cycle will hand out.
Fox is far from the first debate organizer to limit access to its stage.
For starters, there aren’t just 17 GOP candidates for president, and those upset about the debate cutoff are just the tip of a very large iceberg of marginalized candidates. According to the Federal Election Commission, there are more than 130 and counting. What separates “major” candidates with low poll numbers like Lindsey Graham from the rest of the massive field is largely name recognition and subjective opinion. You have to draw the line somewhere; no one is going to stay on the phone while a pollster reels off 100-plus names.
How soon we forget some of the ways we used to kill off “unviable” early-stage candidacies. Until its untimely demise in June, the Iowa Straw Poll — held at a fundraiser benefiting the Iowa Republican Party — had served as a milestone on the path to the White House for 36 years, scattering candidate corpses across the carnival-like event. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty blanketed the state with local ads in the run-up to the 2011 Ames circus, only to finish third — and then quit. The Fox debate steps into the vacuum created by the Iowa poll’s implosion, only with national poll averages playing the role that a bunch of unrepresentative Iowa farmers once did. In some ways, that’s a huge step forward.
Fox is also far from the first debate organizer to limit access to its stage. Four years ago, it used a similar method to cull the field before a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina; CNN, which hosts another GOP debate in mid-September, will also use a national poll average to thin the herd to 10. And the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has run general election debates since 1988, requires participants to poll at at least 15 percent in national polls. This policy essentially excludes third-party candidates; only Ross Perot ever made the cut, in 1992. If it’s an injustice not to hear the voice of an 11th-place GOP candidate in a debate with his 10th-place rival and his marginally different policy perspective 15 months before an election, then it’s presumably an outright crime to bar high-performing third-party candidates like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from debates a month or two before the election. Not only have these candidates won their party’s nomination, they — like Perot — also offer contrasting viewpoints that could be critical to the national debate.
This is not to marginalize the concerns of those being marginalized in Cleveland. The first GOP debate in 2012 attracted 3.3 million viewers, and it’s a huge spotlight for candidates eager to break out of the pack. And the use of national polling numbers does change the rules in a process that has traditionally played out across dozens of early-state caucuses and primaries, not nationwide. Of course, the primary election system is itself, like the Iowa Straw Poll, an inherently uneven playing field — one that favors older white men, those with access to money, those who pander best to rural voters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and so on.
Those forced to fight on the undercard, however, can console themselves with this: With 10 candidates in the 90-minute debate, it’s unlikely anyone will say much of substance. “This will be a debate known for its sound bites and gaffes,” Mary Ellen Balchunis, a La Salle University political scientist running for Congress in Pennsylvania, told OZY. Plus, the less-crowded 5 p.m. slot still promises lots of exposure and opportunities for “fireworks and attacks on Donald Trump,” says Daniel Urman, a professor of law and politics at Northeastern University.
In presidential contests in a nation of more than 300 million, lines need to be drawn somewhere. It’s easy to blame Fox News or lampoon traditions like the Iowa Straw Poll, but when it comes to the grown-up, deliberative debate we could be having about who should be the next American leader, we are all sitting at democracy’s kiddie table. But, for now, pass the popcorn and enjoy the game.