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Eye On Candidates
August 5, 2015

Debate Field Set: Kasich Makes the Cut

The field for the first Republican debate was set last night by Fox News, an event that might wind up being almost as important as whatever actually happens in the debate itself on Thursday evening. The only real news, as suggested by The New York Times headline, is that Ohio Gov. John Kasich snagged the 10th spot, leaving former Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the outside looking in:

John Kasich Is In, Rick Perry Is Out in First Republican Debate

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is in and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is out of Fox News’s Republican debate on Thursday night in Cleveland, officials with the network said Tuesday, resolving the mystery of which lower-polling candidates would make the cut for the first debate of the 2016 presidential contest.

The network announced the 10 candidates who will have a podium spot for the main forum, which is expected to draw wide national viewership and give an invaluable platform to the candidates involved. The remaining seven will be part of an earlier forum airing at 5 p.m. that day….

The others included in the lineup are Donald J. Trump, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ben Carson, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Ann Selzer, a pollster and creator of the Selzer Score, suggests in a Bloomberg piece that Perry might be more deserving of a spot on the stage than Kasich:

We created the Selzer Score to be a way of taking more data into account than just the proportion of first-choice votes each candidate attracts. In a field as mammoth as this one, 100 points is just not very many to go around. There’s an obvious absurdity in making a consequential decision when one candidate gets 3 percent of the vote and another 2 percent.

The index is simple math. For each candidate, we take the percentage of first-choice votes and double it. We then add the percentage who say the candidate is their second choice. Finally, we take the percentage who say they could see ever throwing support, even if the candidate is not their first or second choice. That “ever score” is halved, because it is less important than winning actual votes.

In our latest Bloomberg Politics national poll, the Selzer Score does not substantially recast the field. The candidates who do best in the first-choice vote do well when we calculate the Selzer Score. The exception is Ohio Governor John Kasich and Perry. The publicity surrounding Kasich’s entry into the race earned him a 4 percent showing in voters’ first-choice selection. On its own, that would be enough to get him into the main event at Fox News Thursday. However, he is relatively unknown, with just 26 percent saying they could see themselves ever supporting him. That’s in the territory of Graham (23 percent). A low “ever” score didn’t hurt Donald Trump—he, too, gets 26 percent for his “ever” score. But his dominating lead overshadows what may seem like limited potential.

Perry benefits from a high “ever” score at 49 percent. So, even though just 2 percent said he would be their first choice, he makes up for it for having more upside potential than almost all the other candidates (former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is in that league with a 48 percent ever score).

With the field now set, expect plenty of commentary and analysis pre-debate on what each candidate must do to “win” the debate. The Hill has a compelling piece, “Game on: How each candidate can win first GOP debate,” that provides some interesting insights. A few excerpts for the three leading Republican candidates (according to polls):

Donald Trump

What he needs to do: The real estate mogul and TV personality has shown uncharacteristic signs of modesty in recent days, saying that he is not as skilled a debater as the other candidates. Such claims are a rare sign that Trump is, for once, following the standard political playbook, lowering expectations for his own performance. He was also relatively restrained during appearances on Sunday talk shows this week.

Strengths: If he avoids an obvious disaster, his brashness and élan could win over even more voters.

Weaknesses:  Trump’s rivals are desperate to burst his bubble. That means they might try to expose his vague policy positions, highlight his past donations to Democrats or point to his dismal poll ratings in hypothetical general election match-ups against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Jeb Bush

What he needs to do: Bush’s appeal is built around the idea that he is a sober-minded, cerebral figure. He needs to show that maturity but also demonstrate he has some fire in his belly.

Strengths: Command of policy details is not expected to be a problem for Bush and, as the default front-runner if Trump falters, he can expect to get plenty of airtime.

Weaknesses: Bush can sometimes seem both professorial and brittle. He also last ran for election in 2002, so watch for signs of rustiness. Conservatives remain dubious about him.

Scott Walker

What he needs to do: Reignite a sense of excitement around his candidacy to buttress the sense that he is truly a top-tier contender.

Strengths: One of Walker’s major calling cards is the fact that he has fought, and won, three major elections in recent years. He should be well-practiced in the art of debating.

Weaknesses: Does Walker have the star power and dynamism for a winning presidential run? Doubts remain on that score, and a tepid performance could deepen them.

The whole article is worth the read. Tomorrow’s debate is only the first major event of the nomination process, and while nothing that’s said will win anyone the nomination, it’s quite possible that one or more candidates will either turn in a performance that reinvigorates a lagging campaign or seriously wounds his chance of continuing.