The outcome of a presidential campaign is unlikely to hinge on a single debate. But for 2016 Republicans struggling to compete in the polls, missing the main event means one less chance to win over voters — and donors — as they try to raise their national profile in a crowded GOP field.
So far, the GOP prime-time contenders have raked in roughly $300 million, including super PAC money, compared with just under $40 million scraped together for candidates slated to compete in the earlier debate. That data, courtesy of Federal Election Commission filings, stands as a stark measure of the ground that the second-tier White House hopefuls may have to make up if they want to win the race.
Of course, Fiorina and Jindal — along with Graham, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore — will still have an opportunity to make their case in a Fox News debate held just a few hours before at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
But that doesn't mean they're not at a disadvantage: The debate taking place later that evening has been billed as the main event and is expected to draw a far larger audience, partly as a result of Donald Trump's presence onstage.
"In the immediate aftermath, it's going to almost be as if you're not running for president at all," Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP consultant, said. "If you're not in the prime-time debates, not only do you miss out on a huge audience, you're also not going to be part of any of the conversation about that event."
Failing to soar high enough in the polls to participate in the big debate might also scare away would-be supporters who would rather tie their votes and their money to a candidate seen as more likely to win.
Fox News rolled out the debate roster Tuesday night based on an average of recent national polls. When CNN hosts the next major GOP debate in September, the network intends to similarly invite a top-10 pool of candidates to face off, while hosting a separate forum for contenders who miss the mark.
Both debates — along with seven others set to unfold this year and next — have been sanctioned by the Republican National Committee.
But even as some of the candidates missing out on the first prime-time debate work to paint a rosy picture of the race, campaign aides also made a distinct effort to minimize the significance of the polling that qualified candidates for the event.
"The senator will be taking part in the earlier debate; however, the process employed by both Fox News and the RNC was incredibly flawed," Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon said in a statement. "Eight years ago, Rudy Giuliani was leading the pack, and everyone was writing John McCain's political obituary. National polls are meaningless in August."
It's not just campaigns that are finding fault. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion suspended national primary polling earlier this week amid concern that the benchmarks for the debate cutoff were not a sound use of survey data.