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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Promotion, Relegation, and the Fox Debate

In most sports leagues across the world, the system of promotion and relegation is used. This concept is literally foreign to fans of American sports, where the same teams compete in the same leagues year after year. But in other leagues, most notably in European soccer, teams that finish near the bottom of their standings get "relegated" down a league and are replaced by the top teams from that lower league (teams who are said to be "promoted").  This process can happen for several lower tiers. (If this were to happen in, say, America's Major League Baseball, its worst few teams would become AAA minor league teams the following year, while the best AAA teams would be promoted to MLB. The worst AAA teams would be relegated to AA getting replaced by the top AA teams, and so on.)

We are about to see this system take place in politics.

On August 6, Fox News will host the first debate between the crowded field of the Republican Primary. Its criteria for entry requires that candidates "Must place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by FOX News leading up to August 4th at 5 PM/ET. Such polling must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques."

In a field of 12 candidates that will almost become 16, that means a handful of candidate won't make the top 10 cut. Such high stakes have some at FoxNews calling the debate the "first primary."

Naturally, there were critics of this hierarchical set-up, most prominently the important New Hampshire newspaper the Union-Leader. Recently, Rick Santorum noted that Bill Clinton was out of the top 10 at this point before the 1992 election that ultimately crowned him president.

In response to these criticism, it seems a "second-tier" forum is developing for that same day.

In the weeks leading up to the August 6 debate, there could be furious jockeying (spending cash on hand, tireless campaigning to small venues, etc.) to qualify for it and avoid the ignominy of second-tier status. Just like in the last few weeks of European soccer leagues, where there is much more attention given to the bottom of the league than the middle, much more attention will be given toward candidates ranked 8 through 12 than the more competitive candidates chasing the frontunner, Jeb Bush.

I'm also eager to see if the FoxNews model becomes a precedent. The alternative would either be a cumbersome 16-candidate stage or two separate, full-length debates per venue, each with half the field. (But then how do you determine which candidates goes to which!) Both are more awkward, though also more democratic than the plan of the fair and balanced network.

Interestingly, we should consider whether a candidate on the cusp of the debate would actually rather be in the smaller forum. Why scream for attention with the likes of Bush, Walker, and Rubio stealing the spotlight when a more intimate five to six candidate group will allow more time to share one's ideas? Would the ratings for it be that much lower? And even if they were, news outlets would certainly replay anything of note that came from it. With fewer candidates, that's more of an opportunity for each one to generate something of note.

I suspect that candidates ranked 8 through 12 the week before the debate will privately hope to be in that second-tier forum.  They can use it to blast the establishment, have more time to get their message out, and they can save their direct attacks toward frontrunners for later in the primary when the potential ensuing bump will mean more.

In the meantime, let's watch those polls to see who qualifies!

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