The Slatest

Fox News’ Debate Criteria Are a Total Sham

GOP hopefuls are seen on a large screen while hey participate in a Fox News debate in South Carolina in January 2012.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As pollsters and number-crunching journalists have already pointed out, Fox News’ decision to use five national polls to determine who makes it onstage—and who doesn’t—at the first GOP debate isn’t exactly a scientific process. As Bloomberg’s Steven Yaccino put it, “Methodologically, they might as well be drawing straws.”

It turns out, though, that drawing straws for the final few spots on stage could actually be fairer than what will actually happen next Tuesday at Fox News HQ. It would certainly be more transparent. As New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman points out, with less than a week to go before the field is set, the conservative cable network hasn’t specifically said how it will go about deciding which polls it will use and which it will ignore. “We don’t know what methodology they’re going to use,” one concerned John Kasich adviser told Sherman. “We’ve been asking the question and they haven’t shared.”

The most specific criterion the network has offered publicly to date is that its polling experts will select “the five most recent national polls, as recognized by Fox News”—a statement that effectively says that Fox News will pick the polls that Fox News picks. This isn’t a minor point: With the bottom half of the GOP field so tightly packed and with so much variability from one poll to the next, if Fox execs wait until the last moment, they won’t be picking polls—they’ll be selecting candidates. And as the head of a cable network that thrives on conservative chaos, Fox News chief Roger Ailes is hardly a disinterested observer. Worse still, Ailes is making those decisions in secret while hiding behind the polls in public.

Here’s more from Sherman, who literally wrote the book on Fox News:

Inside Fox, the debate is generating controversy among Ailes’s senior ranks. “There’s total confusion about all of it. The Second Floor is making it up as they go along,” one Fox personality told me, referring to Ailes’s executive suite. According to sources, Fox executives are still undecided about which polls to use and who will be allowed on the stage. … Even inside Fox, some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. “Crazy stuff,” another personality told me, “you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!”

The stakes are particularly high for Kasich, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie, who currently have the best chances of snagging one of the final two spots on the main stage. For them, a few points in a single poll could mean the difference between getting the opportunity for a breakout on the main stage and being forced to sit awkwardly at the losers forum during what could be the beginning of the end for campaigns that have barely began. Of course, candidates who miss out on the debate will have good reason to direct their anger elsewhere: Fox News is sure to be hiring again soon.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.