At seminars and conferences across the country, political scientists, operatives and journalists are discussing and analyzing the 2016 election, its results and aftermath. At the recent Harvard Institute of Politics conference, the role of the media faced considerable scrutiny — profit motives versus journalistic responsibility, fair and equal access for candidates and the proper role of the media in a democratic society were just some of the topics discussed. A Gallup survey conducted this fall found public trust in the media as an institution is at an all-time low.
As a participant in the conference (as Lindsey Graham’s former campaign manager), it is clear the discussion about the role of the media in elections must continue. And the media themselves need to do a better job looking inward at their own shortcomings and mistakes if they are going to regain some of credibility they lost in this election cycle. But one area deserves more attention — the oversized role the media played in picking contenders and non-contenders in the Republican primary via the debate system.
To ensure the voice of the people is heard, both the Republican and Democratic nominations begin in smaller states. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are relatively inexpensive states in which to campaign. They expect and reward grassroots retail approaches. As a result, a large war chest and national name identification are not prerequisites. Largely unknown and underfunded candidates have had success in these early states — John McCain in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Even if they all eventually fell short of the ultimate prize, inexpensive early states where shaking hands and holding town halls is more important than TV interviews and advertisements made them contenders.
The 2016 Republican primary was different. Though it probably did not make a difference in the ultimate outcome, media decisions in the debate process set a dangerous precedent for the future. In the early stages of the primary campaign, media executives used national polling numbers to divide the candidates into upper and lower tiers – those on the main debate stage and those in the “undercard” debate. If a candidate was at 3% in an average of national polls, they made the main stage; those at 3% or below did not. The margin of error in these national polls was 3-5%, depending on the poll. If there is one takeaway from the November election, polls are far from perfect, and margins of error are real. Yet, early national polls became the media’s standard of success as early as June 2015.
Neither the Republican or Democratic Party chooses its nominee in a single, national contest. If they did, using a national poll to determine debate eligibility might make sense. But both parties rely on a series of early state caucuses and primaries. The early state process also prevents money and name identification from being the determining factor in the presidential contest. A reliance on national polling steals the traditional role of the early primary states and puts that power into the hands of the media.
When asked at the Harvard event if the media’s debate criteria decisions were reasonable, Jeffrey Zucker, President of CNN Worldwide said, “I think it was done as fairly as could be done at that time…. I think the RNC and the networks did a reasonably good job of figuring out how to deal with 16 candidates. In a world where there were mistakes made, I don’t really think that was one of them.” There are challenges when factoring in a the large field of contenders (17 legitimate candidates on the Republican side at the beginning). But, allowing the media to tier the field at the start was a usurpation of the responsibility that belongs to the early states. Furthermore, no candidate moved from the “undercard” debate to the main stage except for Carly Fiorina. Yet, Carly Fiorina would not have qualified for the main stage in the second debate except for the fact that CNN changed its debate criteria after the fact, allowing her to move to the big stage.
Media executives created the “undercard” debate; they picked contenders and non-contenders before voters had a chance to examine the candidates for themselves. Their creation was a disservice to the time tested early primary process in the pursuit of money. The debates deserve renewed scrutiny and discussion so that the next time, all candidates have an equitable opportunity to present themselves to the American people.
Christian Ferry is a veteran of four U.S. presidential campaigns and has worked political campaigns in seven foreign countries. He is a founding partner of The Trailblazer Group and participated in the recent Harvard Institute of Politics Conference in Boston.