Forecasting Tuesday's GOP Debate: Who’s In, Who’s Out, Who’s On The Bubble

With the next Republican presidential debate just days away, the slates of candidates for the main event and second-tier debate are solidifying.

As with past contests, CNN will divide Tuesday night's debate into two tiers, and is using certain polls to set the thresholds for inclusion in each.

But this is the first time a media organization has included state-level polls, from Iowa and New Hampshire, in making its calculations. To make the mainstage, candidates must clear 3.5 percent support in an average of national polls, or average 4 percent or better in either New Hampshire or Iowa polls.

The Headliners 

As of now, five candidates will make the main stage debate based solely on their national numbers: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. All have been on the mainstage for every GOP debate thus far.

Past debate criteria have considered only national polls, meaning these five would have had the stage to themselves.  


But with CNN expanding its criteria to include state polls, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Chris Christie will join them, based on their support in New Hampshire. (Iowa does not add any candidates to the stage, as support there is much more concentrated among the frontrunners.)

Christie and Kasich do far better in New Hampshire than in national polls. Christie continued a string of good results in New Hampshire with the new WBUR poll, out Friday morning, placing second behind Trump. His 12 percent is his best showing to date in the state, boosting his average since Oct. 29 to 7.7 percent, almost double the debate threshold. Kasich meanwhile has held a steady place in the middle of the cluster of candidates trailing Trump, easily high enough to qualify.

Strength in Iowa or New Hampshire should not be underestimated in terms of its potential importance. Both states play outsized roles in the nominating contests of both parties. Since 1972, when Iowa and New Hampshire were established as the first nominating contests on the calendar, just one candidate from either party (Bill Clinton in 1992) has won the nomination without winning either state. Christie and Kasich can both take comfort from holding support in one of the two first-to-vote states, as opposed to a hypothetical national primary.

Setting The Kiddie Table

Compared to the main stage, the bar for making the second-tier debate is much lower, requiring just 1 percent on any four qualifying polls done nationally or in either of the two states.

As of this writing, there have been 20 polls that fit the bill -- plenty of chances for a candidate with even an iota of support to make the cut.


As of this writing, five candidates have cleared the threshold: Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki.

That leaves only Jim Gilmore on the outside looking in, a familiar spot for him. He received 0 percent in every qualifying poll conducted during the target time frame.

On The Bubble

The window for including polls closes this Sunday at 5 p.m.. There are rumors of several more polls to be released by that time, which could alter the picture. Paul could still climb to the main stage, most likely if another Iowa poll shows him at 6 percent or better. And Fiorina could be relegated to the lower tier if her string of relatively weak showings continues. Her place onstage is due largely to her earlier surge; her numbers recently have been less than stellar. That leaves Paul hoping for more polls to materialize over the weekend, while Fiorina would be content if things stayed the way there are.

And there’s always the chance that Gilmore could pull an inside straight over the weekend: four polls showing him at 1 percent support. But don’t count on it. Most likely Gilmore will be at home, live-tweeting the debate like the rest of us.

Correction: Due to a misunderstanding about which polls will be included in the selection criteria, some figures and the two graphics in this story have been revised. We regret the errors.

Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets at @skoczela

This article was originally published on December 11, 2015.



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