But is Fiorina better off by being left out?
Yes, the main debate would give her an audience of millions more potential voters. And sure, a candidate can’t expect to break into the top tier without, at some point, competing against the party’s premier presidential hopefuls. And ok, fine, who in their right mind would want to waste an hour trying to fend off the charisma-sapping duo of George Pataki and Jim Gilmore when they could go toe-to-toe with His Excellency, The Donald? (Don’t answer that.)
The more serious argument is that if nothing else is clear this season, it’s that the outsiders are winning. There’s Trump, of course, who is somehow expanding his lead atop the polls despite all manner of impolitic remarks. Fiorina and Ben Carson have quietly moved up in recent weeks, and, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton a surprisingly strong challenge. Fiorina is not a natural candidate of grievance; her on-air style is measured and even-toned, and her strong delivery in the Fox News “Happy Hour” debate stood out on a stage of lesser communicators, probably much more so than if she was debating against the more soundbite-friendly Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie.
Yet the mere possibility of Fiorina’s unfair exclusion from the next GOP debate gives her an opportunity to play against two pillars of the establishment—the media and the Republican National Committee—in a manner that would be laughed off as a loser’s lament if she were still registering at 1 percent in the polls. In her missive on Wednesday, Flores mentioned the party “establishment” four times.
It will be interesting to see if CNN has no qualms excluding someone who is polling in the top 5 in Iowa and New Hampshire, in second place in multiple states, and well within the top 10 nationally. And it will be disappointing if Reince Priebus and the Republican establishment stand by and let a TV network keep Carly off the main stage…again.
Whether they say it publicly or not, it’s clear that the RNC would want to see Fiorina in the primetime debate next month. There’s the obvious matter of wanting to promote their only major woman candidate after years of battling Democrats attacks of a GOP “war on women.” And in a field of so many candidates, there seems to be little point in creating debate-entry criteria that can’t adequately account for shifts in momentum over a month’s time. At the same time, the RNC would be wary of the awkwardness that would come if it bent the rules just to accommodate Fiorina.
So far, CNN is sticking by its criteria, which Priebus publicly backed when they were announced in May. “Federal Election Commission guidelines make it clear that these criteria cannot be changed after they have been published,” the network’s spokesperson said Wednesday. “We believe that our approach is a fair and effective way to deal with the highest number of candidates we have ever encountered.” (The RNC did not comment.)