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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 22: GOP Winnowing Field by Debates

Want to know one reason GOP presidential candidates are not rushing to participate in this year’s Iowa Republican Straw Poll, traditionally the first “scorable” event of the cycle? Other ways are emerging to “winnow” the very large field, as I discussed today at the Washington Monthly. I first quoted Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican:

There is…another dynamic at work here that didn’t exist in previous cycles. The large field of 2016 Republican candidates is making the debate stage really crowded. Both CNN and FOX News recently said that they would limit the debate stage to the top ten candidates. This is a huge development in the presidential campaigns’ poker game.
Huckabee doesn’t have to worry about getting in the debates as he routinely polls in the top five of all national and state polls. That’s not the case for Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, or Lindsey Graham. So what would help Huckabee’s strategy to win Iowa? He needs candidates like Santorum and Jindal out of the race.
Huckabee could accomplish that in two ways. One, by beating them in something like the Straw Poll, which costs lots of money and has other risks associated with it. Or two, Huckabee could slow play it, and let the debates actually clear his main rivals for the Christian conservative votes in Iowa. Huckabee is essentially taking the conservative approach by counting on the debates to winnow the large 2016 GOP field.

Sure enough, Fox News is limiting participation in the first debate on August 6 (just two days before the straw poll) to its estimation of the top ten candidates in public opinion surveys. And if you look at the latest national Fox poll, Rick Perry’s 11th, Rick Santorum’s 12th, and Bobby Jindal is 14th. If you figure candidates not tested (e.g., Donald Trump and John Kasich) might later make the top ten, and take seriously my suggestion that the whole GOP is going to conspire to boost Carly Fiorina’s standing to get her on that stage, then it’s already white-knuckle time for the Ricks and for Bobby. That not only confirms Robinson’s point about Huckabee letting the debates do the winnowing, but also indicates the endangered candidates might decide to devote their resources to whatever it takes to get them into the national polling Top Ten rather than screwing around with chartering buses to Boone….
In any event, the high likelihood that debates using polling data may serve as a winnower of the field resolves one debate we’ve all been having: for Republicans, at least, and this year, at least, early horse-race polls really do matter.

So don’t be surprised if hardly anybody decides to deal with the Straw Poll–or if some of the stragglers say or do some outrageous things to boost their visibility and poll numbers just enough to qualify for the debates.

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