The only fair way to have 17 candidates debate

The 10 GOP presidential hopefuls who will participate in the first prime-time, primary debate Thursday on Fox News. Reuters photos.

The 10 GOP presidential hopefuls who will participate in the first prime-time, primary debate Thursday on Fox News. Reuters photos.

Listen, I know why Fox is limiting the first presidential debate to only 10 people.

Seventeen people, which is what the “serious human being” number is up to in the Republican field, is obviously a completely unworkable number of people to be on a single debate stage at once.

So, presented with that, we have two options. First, we can limit participation. Second, we can split the field up.

Fox has chosen the former, producing a main debate that selects the 10 Republicans who are performing the highest in national polls, though admittedly, they have scheduled a second debate for the other seven candidates.

The problems with what Fox is choosing to do are plentiful. To begin with, the cutoff is problematic, as it is based in polling. Fox took the top 10 candidates based on the five most recent national polls conducted.

Polling is a notoriously sloppy business. As we saw in the most recent gubernatorial election in Maine, and repeated time after time nationally, the numbers are often very wrong.

When the 10th and final candidate, John Kasich, makes it in with a polling average (3.2 percent) that is within the margin of error of nearly all polls, is his candidacy appreciably different than No. 11, Rick Perry, who sported a 1.8 percent average?

Of course not. And consider what you are looking at, anyway, with the five most recent polls.

CBS used a random sample of 1,252 adults nationwide, including 1,047 registered voters. Huh? Who are the 205 unregistered voters?

Bloomberg polled 500 registered Republicans or those who say they are registered independent but lean Republican. So again, registered voters, not likely primary voters, and a small sample.

The Fox News poll is based on interviews with 1,306 randomly chosen registered voters nationwide. But, FNC polled the Democratic race as well, so likely half of those respondents were Republicans. And, once again, registered voters, not likely primary voters.

Monmouth used 423 registered voters who identify themselves as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party. Do I need to repeat myself again here? And now we are under 500 voters sampled for a country of 320 million people.

The NBC poll, my favorite of the lot, sampled 252 — two hundred and fifty two! — Republicans who are likely primary voters, and had a staggering margin of error of 6.17 percent.

So, by my observation, we have a top 10 built upon mostly small samples — some insignificantly tiny — of the wrong kind of voters (registered, rather than likely), some of whom aren’t even Republicans, with extremely high margins of error.

This is what we are trusting to select our “top 10?”

More importantly, though, by choosing to do it the way they have, Fox has now excluded some extremely serious people who deserve an opportunity to debate and has given them a very premature kiss of political death having dismissed them rather inappropriately as bottom feeders.

These people include a former governor — for 15 years — of Texas, our second largest state (Perry); a two-term governor of Louisiana, who was also a former congressman and Rhodes scholar (Jindal); a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who won the Iowa caucus in 2012 and was essentially the runner-up in the previous primary (Santorum); the three-term former governor of New York, who shepherded the state through the Sept. 11th attacks (Pataki); a three-term U.S. senator from South Carolina and one of the nation’s leading national security hawks (Graham); and the only woman in the field who also happened to be the first woman to be CEO of one of the country’s top 20 companies.

These are substantial people. Limiting debate participation and giving credence to the notion these candidates are somehow less worthy of attention makes it that much harder for them to be seen and have a chance to shine. That is not good for the democratic process.

Which brings me back to my second option, which is the option debates should be following.

Break up the field into two groups — one of nine candidates, the other eight — randomly selected. Stage two debates, in two successive evenings, both in prime time. Top- and bottom-tier candidates in both, allowing the small fries and big dogs to be seen mixing it up together on both nights, giving them all opportunity, and giving us the opportunity to truly see everyone as peers.

With a historic field this large, and frankly this good and qualified, it is the only fair way to do it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.