How CNN's Debate Math is Hurting Carly Fiorina

The network is relying on outdated polls to set its lineup for the Sept. 16 debate.

Carly Fiorina Tours And Speaks At Stellar Industries

Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, tours the production facilities of Stellar Industries during a campaign stop in Garner, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker

Carly Fiornia still has a math problem. 

Despite a stand-out performance in the Aug. 6 Republican undercard forum hosted by Fox News and Facebook, and rising poll numbers ever since, Fiorina still may not be granted a spot at CNN's Sept. 16 debate. 

CNN’s formula for using polls to decide their Republican debate lineup is likely already decided.  They intend to include polls dating from July 16 until Sept. 10 (several days before their Sept. 16 debate).  That is good news for Chris Christie, and possibly John Kasich.  It is bad news for Fiorina.

Recall, there was a flurry of polls that hit ahead of the Fox News debate, that consistently showed the same 10 candidates with enough support to claim a spot on the main stage.

The debate was a ratings bonanza—the highest ever for a primary debate. For every one person who watched Fiorina in the afternoon, four were watching her higher-ranked competitors in the evening.  So, the decision of who stands where mattered.  

It will matter just as much for the upcoming CNN debate.  From a data-driven perspective, Fiorina, whose campaign declined to comment for this article, has a case to object to CNN's math. She was a standout among the lower-polling candidates in the afternoon forum. Since then, her poll numbers have climbed out of the 1-2% range to the 4-6% range. In some polls, she bests Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Christie—all candidates featured in the main debate on Fox News.

Harry Enten, senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.com has done the math on what it would take for Fiorina to earn a spot with the other top 10 candidates: It’s nine polls in the next few weeks with support of around 5% (her showing in the latest CNN and Fox News polls released since the Fox News debates).  

Will there be nine polls?  CNN has sanctioned 14 polling organizations to contribute to the decision:  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

Pollster.com shows only two of these have been releasing polls at least monthly since May:  CNN and Fox News.  The others are on an unpublished schedule, with no guarantee there will be the polls Fiorina would hypothetically need between now and the CNN cut-off date. Three of the organizations cited as acceptable sources—Gallup, Pew, and Time—don’t appear to have released any polls that include a horserace question in all of 2015. The opportunity for Fiorina to repeatedly beat formerly top-ranked candidates seems remote.

She would need a groundswell of polls to change her fate. But, because of the CNN rules, her past is her destiny. 

The reason it is so mystifying that CNN wants to anchor candidates to polling data from July is that those politicians have spent a whole lot of money since then in an effort to change poll numbers. Any change since the first debate will be bleached out by the old data gathered before the first. The candidates deserve better.

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