Public-opinion polls, once employed by political consultants to gauge the concerns of voters as a means to shape their candidates' campaigns more effectively, have become the tail that wags the dog.
No longer limited to that informational function, the polls have been used virtually to usurp the process. They will determine who deserves to be listened to, and who not, in Thursday's first televised debate among the top 10 of 17 declared Republicans for the 2016 presidential nomination.
The Republican National Committee has decided that only the top 10 contestants, as determined by a composite of national polls by certain news and public-opinion organizations, will be eligible for the prime-time debate, to be aired by the Fox News channel.
As a result of that arrangement, billionaire Donald Trump, leading or running second in most of the polls, is certain to the among the anointed. Others likely to make the top 10 are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Others vying for the remaining slots include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, physician Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
Messrs. Huckabee and Santorum can point to past success in winning previous Iowa precinct caucuses, but few of the other bottom-feeders have any particular national political credentials to single them out. Perhaps the closest is Mr. Kasich, who spent 18 years in Congress, rose to be a chairman of the important House Budget Committee and was a prominent lieutenant in the Ronald Reagan revolution.
Yet, because he was among the latest of the Republicans to declare his candidacy, he has had little time to get the message out about his work in Congress and as governor of Ohio, for which he was re-elected in 2014 by a landslide.
With Ohio very likely to be critical in the 2016 general election — no Republican was ever elected president without carrying it — Mr. Kasich could well be shut out of that first debate in his own state, in Cleveland on Aug. 6, though his poll numbers are already rising.
The arrangement to limit this, the first of nine RNC-sanctioned televised debates, to the top 10 in the selected polls obviously runs counter to basic fairness. Those left out may be offered a separate session as a sop, but the chances are the segment would not be taken seriously by viewers and would have low viewership.
Nevertheless, by what other procedure than standing in the polls — public support expressed by those willing to tell poll-takers their preference, or just their interest or familiarity with the names presented — would make more sense?
Had Mr. Kasich as a late starter known earlier that generating such support in the public-opinion apparatus would hold the key to earning a ticket to the main television debate, he probably would not have tarried so long. But that's another story.
It can reasonably be asked why, six months before the first votes are cast to determine the next Republican nominee, 17 aspirants are vying for the job with no clear frontrunner, beyond a TV celebrity with no demonstrable political qualifications or record to recommend him.
The one contender in the pack who did start early, hoping to clear the field with his famous family name and its fund-raising prowess — Jeb Bush — has had harder sledding than expected. Perhaps it's because of a "no more Bushes" sentiment in the party and the electorate.
And what about the rest? Is it true that the field itself is so unimpressive as a group that each contender is looking at the competition and saying to himself: "Why not me?" John F. Kennedy in 1960 supposedly looked around the Senate floor one day, spied Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and Stuart Symington, and asked himself the same question.
The latest Republican candidates have just as much or more reason now to do likewise, considering the current crop.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.