How to deflate the polls

Jules Witcover recommends two GOP debates, with candidates split into sets of 7 by alphabetical order.

Now that one of the Republican presidential debates has focused on substantive examination of the candidates' policy views, it's not too late to address the glaring injustice of choosing the participants by their standing in the public-opinion polls.

The travesty in the first four rounds of relegating some of them to the "undercard" never should have happened. It was as if the election process was like another night of boxing at Madison Square Garden. The party should not continue excluding from the main event some of its most accomplished politicians.

At the outset, the Republican National Committee and the sponsoring news outlets decided that in the television era, having the then-17 declared GOP presidential aspirants all on one stage would be unwieldy. So the top 10 finishers in an amalgam of the major polls got to appear in the first one, and the remainder were assigned to a sort of junior-varsity debate.

Though both debates were aired on the tube, not surprisingly the viewership for the main event in prime time far surpassed the undercard, at the expense of the lower achievers in the polls. By the time of the fourth GOP debate, one of most dynamic of the candidates, two-time Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an earlier winner of the Iowa caucuses, were demoted to the preliminary as a result of falling poll scores.

Others like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the leading military hawk in the field, and three-term Gov. George Pataki of New York eventually were shut out completely. So much for the right of the voters to hear from all the candidates, some of them harpooned by polls in which only a handful of voters were surveyed.

The argument made by some of the sponsors prevailed: that having too many candidates on the stage would be too cumbersome, and would make for less manageable or less entertaining television; as if the industry did not already have enough of a stranglehold on this supposed public-service feature of modern-day politics.

So although Mr. Christie on the most recent undercard made a strong case for first-string consideration of the voters, he now has to wait to see whether his polling numbers rise sufficiently for him to be included in the next Republican debate, scheduled for mid-December. The same fate awaits the others on the undercard, as well as still others like Mr. Graham who had slipped badly in the last one.

One simple adjustment in the process could silence or console the second-class debaters in the first four rounds. Why not retain the two-debate format but split the remaining field of 14 by alphabetical order? And hold the two debates on consecutive nights, each in prime time?

This approach would present the candidates to the voters without the prejudgment of the current procedure. One group would include Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Mr. Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Graham and Huckabee. The second would include Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Mr. Pataki, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump.

The matchups might not be ideal, but in each set there would be ample potential for fireworks, as well as for serious issue clashes. For example, one debate would pit Mr. Bush, the establishment politician, against Dr. Carson, the citizen-outsider, and Mr. Cruz, the dyed-in-the-wool conservative, against Mr. Christie, the red winner in a blue state. In the other debate, Mr. Trump, the reality television icon, could take on Mr. Rubio, the new-generation up-and-comer, and Ms. Fiorina, the other hawk, could challenge Mr. Paul, the defense dove, and so on.

More important, this approach would be demonstrably fairer to all concerned. So would an old-fashioned lottery, with names picked from a hat for each debate by a recognized pillar of the community. It's too bad that Ben Carson is himself a candidate. As he said himself in the fourth debate: "People who know me know that I'm an honest person."

Alas, however, the matter is in the hands of television sponsors of the debates and of faceless pollsters who have come to be the arbiters of the nation's public opinion. So the show will go on as previously scheduled, as they say in television land.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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