Two candidates who have been part of each of the prime-time Republican debates so far, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, have been demoted to next week’s undercard event because of low national poll numbers, delivering a major blow to their campaigns.
It could be worse — and for George Pataki and Lindsey Graham it was. They won’t appear in either debate Tuesday on Fox Business Network. The cable news channel limited participation in the main event in Milwaukee to just eight candidates and to just four in the earlier debate.
The candidates shut out of the debates accused the news media of taking away the right of voters to decide who would be the nominee. They also revisited questions about using polls with statistically insignificant differences between candidates as a means of elevating some and devaluing others.
“It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day,” Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement on behalf of the South Carolina senator. “In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”
“The voters — not networks driven by ratings or national polls that are statistically irrelevant — should decide our next president,” said Pataki, a former governor of New York.
Those still on the air tried to take the high road in the face of the bad news. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, tweeted: “It doesn’t matter the stage, give me a podium and I’ll be there to talk about real issues.” Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said he was “happy to debate anyone, anywhere, anytime. We are months away from actual votes being cast and neither the pundits nor the press will decide this election. The people will.”
Both Christie and Huckabee had struggled to stand out in the crowded Republican field amid signs of momentum in states where the first primary contests will be held. After the Milwaukee debate, just two GOP debates remain before the Iowa caucuses.
The decision came as a particular surprise for Christie, who had been in the midst of one of the best weeks of his campaign thanks to a viral video in which he discusses the pain of drug addiction that has been viewed more than 6 million times.
The main debate Tuesday will feature businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The undercard debate airing earlier will feature Christie, Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
National opinion surveys have played a pivotal role in shaping the contest for the GOP nomination. Statistically, pollsters say, there is no significant difference between candidates lumped together near the bottom of the pack in national polls, which typically have a margin of error of 3 percentage points or more.
According to debate criteria issued by Fox Business last week, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent major polls conducted through Nov. 4 to be featured in the prime-time debate. They must hit the 1 percent mark to qualify for the undercard event.
Steve Duprey, chairman of the Republican National Committee’s debate subcommittee, has been frustrated that such debate criteria have ignored candidates’ standing in early-voting states where they spend most of their time.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry provides a cautionary tale of the potential impact of being out of the prime-time spotlight. Fundraising dollars dried up after Perry was relegated to the undercard debate earlier in the year.