CNN Carlymanders Its Debate Criteria

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Donald Trump is the biggest story in the Republican presidential race right now, but he’s not the only non-traditional politician who’s surging. There’s Ben Carson, who is rising in polls since the first debate in August (despite a somewhat blah performance), and there is Carly Fiorina, who by acclamation won the “kid’s table” debate, and by extension, the entire night.

Her fiery performance propelled the former HP executive higher in national polls, but she still risked being shut out of the second debate, hosted by CNN on September 16. For the last few weeks, she’s waged a campaign demanding that CNN include only more recent polls in their reckoning of who made it on stage.

On Tuesday, that campaign succeeded, with CNN announcing that it will tweak its criteria for who qualifies.

Rather than choosing the top 10 candidates, it will accept any candidate who polled in the top 10 between August 6 and September 10. The previous set of rules required candidates to place in the top 10 between July 16 and September 10, but CNN said it was changing the criteria because there haven’t been many national polls since the first debate.

If polling trends hold, that will let Fiorina on stage. Here’s the weird part: CNN doesn’t appear to want to kick anyone off, so there might be more than 10 candidates on stage. So much for keeping the numbers under control.

Still, the Republican Party was eager to have a female candidate on the stage; Fiorina was eager to get on stage; and CNN can’t be unhappy about having an increasingly popular candidate in the mix. But what if it’s a pyrrhic victory for Fiorina? That’s an idea my colleague Russell floated last week:

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.

We’ll see how Fiorina fares, but having her and Trump on the same stage should at the very least guarantee a lively night.