The Best Thing About the Fox and CNN Debate Criteria
By Katherine Riley | Jul 21, 2015
On June 10, a group of high-level New Hampshire Republicans sent a letter to the RNC, pleading with it to disallow the imposition of a ten-candidate limit on the first presidential debate. There are a lot of problems with Fox News and CNN’s plan to limit the number of Republican candidates who will get compete in their debates, but the one effect that New Hampshire Republicans seem to be most incensed about—that it could be, as Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid put it, “a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary”—might not be such a bad thing.
Unlike in previous years, candidates need to do well in national polls to get into the debates, the presence at which is necessary for running any sort of legitimate campaign. So a laser-sharp focus on the early states is not a smart strategy. Presumably for this reason, last week, three of Rick Perry’s super PACs announced they have decided to run national ads on his behalf, far earlier than usual. Fox News could have inadvertently handed us a chance at wrestling some of that outsized influence away from Iowa and New Hampshire.
Admittedly, being bombarded with political ads is not the height of democratic participation. And while the bizarre and almost universally despised formula Fox and CNN have dreamed up isn’t going to keep presidential candidates from all but relocating to the early states, it may force them—at least the lower-polling Republicans—to pay more attention to the rest of the country, and lessen the stranglehold early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have on the presidential nominations.
If those states were good representative samples of the country as a whole, there may be a stronger case for them to be the first two contests, but they’re not. The U.S. population is about 63 percebt non-Hispanic white—Iowa and New Hampshire’s are about 91 percent and 94 percent, respectively. Around 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas; about 36 percent of Iowans and 40 percent of New Hampshirites do. And the median household income in New Hampshire is over $10,000 more than the median U.S. income. The more you look at it, the less sense it makes.
It’s a testament to both the unique role of the early states and my credentials as a civics nerd that I often imagine living in New Hampshire, conjuring up all sorts of run-ins with candidates and high-level campaign folk: Rand Paul interrupting a casual Sunday brunch to shake my hand, me giving Robby Mook that extra penny he needs in the coffee shop line, or narrowly missing Donald Trump’s convoy of limousines. And while I’m sure the early-voting states aren’t exactly these sorts of political wonderlands, their residents do enjoy the special privilege of having an intimate window into the national democratic process.
The Fox and CNN debate criteria may be seriously flawed, but as the Perry super PACs’ recent move has suggested, they may have also given the whole country a peek through that window.