NONCONFIDENTIAL MEMO TO: Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO, Fox News
CC: Jeff Zucker, president, CNN Worldwide; Reince Priebus, chairman, Republican National Committee
Roger, you and Fox News are about to make a big mistake. By following the missteps of all those who misuse poll numbers, your network will reduce established Republican presidential candidates to tiers.
Mainly, you'll be short-changing Republican voters who deserve to have their first chance to compare candidates side-by-side Aug. 6, when Fox hosts the 2016 campaign’s first presidential candidates’ debate. A month later, CNN and Jeff Zucker will be making the same mistake when his network hosts the second debate. Of course, you’re both are doing this with the quiet approval of the RNC.
But there is a solution: As you'll see below, by merely tweaking your network’s debate format you can make this campaign curtain raiser fair to candidates, politically balanced and viewer-friendly.
Roger, since you’ve had more political experience and success than anyone I know in the news business, I’m sure you’ve also been concerned about the problem. Fox and CNN will use an average of five respected national opinion polls to cut the field of 16 GOP candidates with impressive resumes to just a top tier of 10. They will debate for two hours in prime time in Cleveland. The rest will be banished to a second-tier debate held at 5 p.m., when viewership is much smaller.
But you also know polling numbers really can’t be used to divide a field in that artificial way because they aren’t real, absolute numbers – they’re just an approximation. Each poll’s margin of error of, say, five percentage points means that a candidate’s actual popular appeal could be five points higher or lower than the sampling percentage listed beside a candidate’s name.
(Unfortunately, poll numbers are misused more frequently now than ever, even by poll-savvy journalists. On NBC News’ “Meet the Press” last Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd, usually a media gold standard when covering poll-driven politics, divided one state poll into not two tiers but three – with an insulting separate screen dividing the candidates picked by 1 percent of respondents below those who garnered 2 percent! Never mind that, given the margin of error, those ones and twos are essentially the same number.)
So consider CNN’s latest survey of each candidate’s nationwide support among likely Republican voters, the sample of 419 people interviewed July 22-25, which had a margin of error of plus or minus five points. The top 10 was headed by Donald Trump at 18 percent, Jeb Bush at 15 and Scott Walker at 10. The next seven candidates had percentages of 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, 4, 4.
And the candidates who didn’t make that tier – and wouldn’t be allowed to debate on Fox or CNN based on this poll – had percentages of 3, 2, 2, 1 and 1. (Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore had not yet entered the race.) Yet if you add 5 points to their number or subtract 5 from the seven candidates above this group, it could be that their real number put them in that first tier. And they could be seen with – and competing against – Trump, Bush, Walker, et al.
Politico.com has calculated those who would be banished to a way too early second-tier debate will presently include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Gov. George Pataki of New York, and the only woman in the GOP race, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
It’s wrong for the news media to artificially affect and alter the campaign they are covering. And everyone agrees it’s unworkable to have 16 or more candidates onstage debating at the same time.
So here’s the best workable solution:
1. Divide the candidate field in two segments of eight candidates by drawing names out of a hat.
2. In the first 45 minutes, candidates in Segment One debate. A moderator or panel asks candidates to propose solutions for a major domestic issue (say, healthcare) and then a major international issue.
3. In the next 45 minutes, Segment Two candidates debate those same issues.
4. And in the final 30 minutes, Segments One and Two are on stage. Candidates can make their closing arguments and voice their final rebuttals of anything any candidate has said that night.
Given the huge and potentially unwieldy field, this idea is at least fair and also balanced.
Roger, I’ve reported. You decide.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.