We're about to see some wild behavior from the Republican presidential candidates. At least that's what the cable networks are trying to arrange.
To understand why, look at how Fox News and CNN have set their debate rules for the first GOP debate, which will take place on Aug. 6 on Fox.
The Washington Post explains how Fox's rules work: "To qualify for the event, candidates must place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls by August 4th at 5 p.m. ET. Such polling must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques and recognized by Fox News."
Apparently if two (or more) candidates tie for 10th, however that's defined, they will both (or all) be included.
In CNN's rules for the second debate, scheduled for Sept. 16, the top 10 candidates "in public polling" will debate, and a second session will take place for those who have fallen further back but still "meet the minimum threshold of 1 percent."
By allowing the television host to set the rules, the Republican National Committee passes the buck on the controversies that will arise when candidates are excluded. But it also loses the opportunity to hand-select the candidates it wants to see included by drawing up its own rules.
There's also the incentive structure the Fox (and CNN) rules create. As National Journal's Josh Kraushaar says: "Limiting the number of GOP debate participants would incentivize the underdogs taking shots at the front runners to generate attention."
This is only half of it. We're going to see gimmicks, stunts and every attention-grabbing device the campaigns can think of, all timed to maximize poll standings near the end of July.
All of this public campaigning promises to provide cheap, watchable programming for the same cable news networks that are setting up the incentives. A public feud between two candidates (even a phony one deliberately planned to draw attention) should attract higher ratings than coverage of the less-visible courting of party insiders that candidates might otherwise be engaged in. And some contenders who have a pile of money but little public impact may run national ads on, say, Fox News, to try to get into the top 10.
Most Republican voters have barely heard of most of these politicians, who in many cases have done little to differentiate themselves. Early polling mostly measures name recognition — or which candidate comes to mind because he or she was just in the news. With some 17 active contenders at last count (competing for 10 debate slots), getting the candidate's name out just before the last round of polls is the key.
We've already seen mini-surges for Ted Cruz and others just from the formal announcements of their candidacies. Cruz spiked 7 percentage points in the RCP polling average after he declared, and has lost about half that since. Since 5 percent in national opinion polls will easily be enough to earn a spot on stage, national publicity for almost anything could do the trick.
Constructing polling averages is an art, not a science, and there's plenty of room (deliberately manipulated or not) for different results driven by the choice of methods. Fox appears to be using a simple average, but it hasn't told us what polls it will include. This makes a difference. The current RCP average shows Rick Santorum in 10th place and excludes Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but Harry Enten of 538 calculates that under at least one interpretation of Fox's guidelines, Kasich would bump Santorum.
It's impossible to know who is really ahead, especially for candidates bunched toward the bottom. So it may come down to luck, when the last two or three slots are filled. Right now, the candidates in ninth through 14th place in HuffPollster's estimates are separated by all of 1.8 percentage points, so claiming one is ahead of another is guesswork.
Perhaps more important, these current also-rans — Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Kasich — are close to zero in the ratings. It wouldn't take much for a Joe the Plumber to declare a candidacy and reach 10th place if he's featured on Fox in June.
For the viable candidates, it's probably necessary to get some polling momentum at some point between now and the end of the year. Debates could help build that. At the same time, party actors, even those who realize how arbitrary the rankings are, may tend to write off the excluded candidates.
None of this may affect the party's image, although Republican officials seem to believe it does. It's unlikely any general-election votes are at stake just because, say, Fiorina is on the stage for an event few will watch and hardly anyone will remember a year later. But candidates who are excluded from the debates but who have important supporters could wind up holding it against the party.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.