FOX and CNN GOP Primary Debate Rules Create a Contest Within a Contest

A horse race inside a horse race.

2016 debate season begins when Fox News hosts the first Republican primary with partner Facebook on August 6. That will signal the start of the next round of horse-race coverage, to which news orgs can add their ‘which candidates are looking ever more presidential’ stories and debate-gaffe tweet roundups to the cycle. But what to do in the next two or so months before?

A look at FOX’s and CNN’s sparring rules may give us an answer. Fox is limiting entry to the top 10 (or 11 or 12 if there’s a tie) finishers of the average of five polls by Aug. 4. Yay. Polls.  Greta Van Susteren, fan of the underdog, is already offering the also-rans or the [once and future] also-rans a chance to duke it out on her show.

CNN, which announced yesterday that its Sept. 16 GOP primary debate will feature a two-tiered system in which the top ten (no ties) candidates from an average of polls conducted between July 16 and Sept 10 will appear in one segment of the debate, while the remaining candidates who have managed to get at least one popularity point in three different national polls will essentially serve the functions of headliners to the main event with an invitation to appear in the other segment of the debate.

This creates an added urgency to our national obsession with polls, now imbued with fresh meaning, at least as it applies to figuring out who will get kicked off of Debate Survivor in the coming months, and all the speculative copy that will be devoted to that battle. And, no, Jeff Probst won’t be moderating either debate.