Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Is the RNC Using the Debate Criteria to Winnow the Field?

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

First, over at FHQ Plus...
  • The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the upper chamber's version of a bill to move the presidential primary in the Ocean state. All that and more at FHQ Plus.
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In Invisible Primary: Visible today...
As FHQ noted earlier in the week in this space, the RNC released the qualification criteria for its first presidential primary debate in August late last week. Of course, our's was not the only reaction out there. Walt Hickey at Business Insider astutely pointed out the likely small pool of polls the national party will be able to lean on by requiring qualifying polls to have at least "800 registered likely Republican voters" in the sample. And FiveThirtyEight's Geoffrey Skelley noted that the DNC allowed qualification in the first 2019 debate by polling or donors whereas the RNC is requiring candidates hit both metrics to qualify in 2023

In total it sums to a high bar exerting some pressure on the low end of the field. The Burgums and Hutchinsons and Elders and Johnsons, in other words, will potentially have some to a great deal of difficulty making the stage. And that is a departure from the past two contests that have seen large fields, the 2020 Democrats and 2016 Republicans. Four years ago, the DNC had to have two consecutive nights of debates (with randomly chosen participants) to accommodate everyone who qualified. And four years before that, the RNC split the field into a main stage debate and kiddie table debate; a set up that had its own potential winnowing effects. 

But the criteria are not the only facet of this overall process exerting winnowing pressures on the candidates struggling to gain attention. There is pressure from the top end of the field in 2023 that was not present in either 2020 (Democrats) or 2016 (Republicans) or not present to the same extent. Here is what I mean.

Look at how the fields of candidates are positioned on this date in 2015 and 2019. How much support were the top candidates pulling in?

Jeb Bush -- 11.3 percent (please clap) 
Scott Walker -- 10.8 percent 
Marco Rubio -- 10.3 percent 
[Combined: 32.4 percent]

Joe Biden -- 33.5 percent 
Bernie Sanders -- 16.7 percent 
[Combined: 50.2 percent]

Quibble if one will about using the Real Clear Politics averages or the specific date chosen or how many candidates were included or whatever, but the two examples above are far different from what one sees now in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race. 

Donald Trump -- 53.2 percent 
Ron DeSantis -- 22.3 percent 
[Combined: 75.5 percent]

There just is not a lot of oxygen there for other candidates. Some might have difficulty qualifying for the first debate regardless of the criteria. The first debate was going to apply winnowing pressure regardless. What the RNC criteria may decide is just how much. And this top end pressure is not new. Trump and DeSantis have routinely gobbled up about three-quarters of the support out there. As DeSantis has faded Trump gained. Stretching into last year, as Trump's fortunes waned, DeSantis rose. 

FHQ is not saying the debate rules do not matter. They do and they will likely help winnow the field to some degree. But that is not the only thing exerting some winnowing pressure on the other candidates. They are, however, one of the few things in the control of the national party.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has launched his bid for the Republican nomination with a splashy new video, but starts in a bad spot. And as Julia Azari and Seth Masket argue, Pence is stuck trying to resurrect the party of Reagan while simultaneously tethered to a Trump anchor. Candidates have seen some success trying to tread between past and present in years gone by, but it is not a path for Pence that is without resistance in the current context, they point out.

In the travel primary, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to branch out and hit states that are not home to one of the first four contests. There is a trip to Oklahoma this weekend and another to keynote a big Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser next month. Both are Super Tuesday states.

Also, CNBC's semiannual survey of millionaires still shows DeSantis as the choice, but the gap between him and the former president has noticeably shrunk since the last survey was conducted in fall 2022.

On this date... 1988, President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis both swept primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico. The wins by Dukakis pushed him over the number of delegates necessary to clinch the Democratic nomination. 2008, New York Senator Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Senator Barack Obama a few days after the last round of primaries. 2016, Donald Trump ran off a string of victories in primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota to close out primary season on the Republican primary calendar. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won primaries in California, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders continued his success in caucus states, winning in North Dakota and besting Clinton in the Montana primary. 2020, President Donald Trump won an electronic vote of party leaders in Puerto Rico to take all of the island territory's delegates in the Republican presidential nomination race.


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