The Mad Scramble to Get Off the Republican Debate Bubble

Nine candidates are competing for three slots. It’s a crazy game, and Donald Trump is the only one who really knows how to play.
Photographer: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

In the month before college basketball’s N.C.A.A. tournament bracket is announced, there is a mad scramble for dozens of teams to get off the bubble. Top-tier teams like Duke and Kentucky and Michigan State don’t have to worry about the bubble; they’re comfortably in the tournament. It’s the ones who are in slots 32-44, fighting for one of the tournament’s 36 at-large bids, who spend that last month in a state of constant stress and panic: The tournament is so important that if you make it, your season is vindicated, and if you don’t, it’s as if your season didn’t happen at all.

This madness, in a unique set of circumstances that may never be replicated, has extended itself to this year’s Republican primary season. There are currently 16 human beings running for the Republican nomination for president, the first time that any debate organizer would ever have to fit more than 10 people on a stage. So, Fox News and CNN, who are hosting the first two debates on Aug. 6 and Sept. 16, respectively, have designed a solution: Only 10 make the cut. Fox News is relying on five national polls—it has not yet said which polls it is using, which, considering the debate is a month away, is cutting it a bit close—to produce the 10 candidates who will grace the main stage. The main 10 will debate each other with Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace in Cleveland at 9 p.m.; the current plan is that the other six will participate in a “candidate forum” from 1-3 p.m., which is to say, they won’t be participating in anything at all. (There isn’t much on the planet less “prime time” than lunch hour on a summer Thursday.) At the CNN debate at the Reagan Library in September, the bottom six, assuming they have at least 1 percent in the polls, will, unless the plan is changed, be “Segment B” of the debate, which is sort of like a kids’ table, or maybe a side stage at a particularly crowded music festival.

Many Republicans, and not just the candidates themselves, are furious about these rules, but neither Fox nor CNN has given any indication they plan on changing them. Which means that the next month—in which no votes will be cast—might well end up being among the most pivotal of the whole primary campaign. These candidates, for the next 30 days, aren’t trying to get votes: They’re trying to get poll points.

Because of what’s at stake, it’s likely to be a somewhat desperate process. There’s no better way in America to build your brand than running for president. Just the audacity of standing in front of a room of people—of getting a room of people to show up—and saying “I’m running for president” elevates a person. Whatever your goal, whether it’s getting yourself a better spot on a certain committee, consideration for a veep slot down the line, or just a television talk show, having “presidential candidate” before you name does nothing but help you. People listen to you in a way they might not otherwise. You felt differently about Herman Cain because he was standing on a stage with a person who might become president of the United States, even though, independent of that fact, there was no real reason to feel differently about Herman Cain. That’s what running for president gets you. Thus, if you don’t get in that top 10, your campaign could, for all intents and purposes, be over before it even begins.  The whole point of doing this is gone. If you run for president but aren’t in the debates, well, you’re not really running for president at all.

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Read more about the wide Republican field angling for the ten available spots in the upcoming debates.

If you look at the early poll numbers—and remember, we’re still not sure exactly which polls Fox will be using—it appears there are seven candidates who are comfortably in, off the bubble, your North Carolinas and your UCLAs: Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee. They have nothing to worry about, and, unlike the N.C.A.A. tournament, they needn’t worry about seeding.

Then you have nine candidates in competition for the three remaining slots. In whatever order you want them: Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki. These are your bubble teams. The next month may very well turn out to be their whole campaign. If they make the top 10, they can campaign like normal candidates again, with the stage and the platform they expected when they announced in the first place. If they don’t, though … the bubble bursts. While those left out certainly still have a path forward, they will have failed the first test. 

Which may mean that candidates who in the past would be wearing holes in their shoes in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina will not have as much time for that this cycle. They need to get off the bubble. This dynamic may explain some unusual moves by some of the bubble candidates, the sort of publicity-garnering events you wouldn’t ordinarily find at this stage. Ted Cruz is out there trying to go BuzzFeed-viral with (awful, but still sort of charming) Simpsons imitations. Rick Perry gives a speech saying Republicans need to court black voters, the kind of speech designed to make headlines but not necessarily appeal to voters in Iowa or new Hampshire. Bobby Jindal doesn’t just respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage; he flat-out says, “Let’s just get rid of the court.” These don’t appear to be the actions of people building a campaign, state by state: These are the actions of people trying to court national publicity. An argument could be made that someone like Cruz, whose allied super-PACS reportedly have $37 million, shouldn’t spend his money in Iowa; he should spend it buying national ads on Fox News. Ordinarily, it would be insane to do that at this stage, but right now, it’s about courting polls, not voters. If Cruz can bump up his name recognition, he can escape the bubble, make the debates, and then go about trying to actually impress voters. If you don’t have Cruz’s cash, you have to be like Jindal and Perry: Saying something designed for shock value, just so someone will notice you. The polls are now life. And attention is the oxygen.

In other words, the candidate most suited to this process is Trump. Political campaigns have always had an undercurrent of reality television. But the top 10 process makes it more explicit, in a way that favors a reality TV master like Trump. It’s entertainment now; the politics seems secondary. If the current governor of Ohio can’t make a debate in his own state, that’ll be because of Trump … and he will be furious. So will most Republicans. It is worth noting that for one of the first times in recent Republican history, the interests of Fox News and the interests of the Republican Party are far from aligned. The Republican Party, top to bottom, would do anything in its power to keep Trump out of the debate, while for Fox (along with CNN), Trump not only means eyeballs, he means outstanding television. Tossing Trump in on stage turns every debate into a fiasco, which is bad for the Republican Party but ratings manna for the cable networks. We have finally found where Fox News and conservative politics diverge: Donald Trump.

The irony is that Trumpism is exactly what Jindal, Cruz, Perry and company will all have to be doing to make sure their bubble doesn’t burst. Worry about the butter sculptures at the Iowa State Fair later. Right now, you’ve got to get in the game, which means going national. We are talking about infinitesimal percentages here: The difference between eighth place and 15th could be about three percentage points, well within any self-respecting poll’s margin of error. Which just makes the stakes that much higher. Any small move could make the difference between making that stage and missing it, which means you have to try out every small move.

This is of course completely bizarre. Politicians have always watched the polls, but over the next month, the polls are the only thing that matters. This will lead to the strange notion of candidates having to say outlandish things over the next month to get their name in the news and then settle down into a normal person once they’ve made a debate. This is a primary where you pivot before the primary. Allowing pollsters and television networks to choose who gets to be a candidate long before any actual voter ever gets to see them is profoundly undemocratic in the purest way. It is an awful way to narrow this field, this non-primary primary. But as any seasoned college basketball fan can tell you, watching teams desperately scramble to avoid their bubble bursting is incredibly entertaining. Strap in. It’s gonna be a wild month. It’s going to be madness.

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