With just 10 days until the heavily impacted first Republican presidential debate, several candidates are on the outside looking in. And to try and secure a spot on the national stage, they're pulling out all the stops.
Some very big names are expected to be left out, with Fox News allowing only the top 10 candidates in the massive GOP field to participate – based on an average of five national polls leading up to two days before the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland. Inclusion in the debate could be absolutely critical for several candidates, who are hoping to gain exposure, rev up their momentum, gain credibility, and fundraise off of the debate.
“This is really your opportunity to show how and why your ideas matter and why people should engage with you more. And if you don’t have that opportunity, how are you going to move up your percentages?” said GOP pollster and strategist David Winston, who advised Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. “... It’s the first time for many to see these folks interact with each other. It’s the initial view of the field. If you’re not part of that, it’s a real problem. It’s a huge problem,” Winston added.
If the cutoff were today, at least two candidates with no executive experience – billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson—would make the cut, according to the latest calculation by NBC News. Meanwhile, others, including the governor of the state that’s hosting the debate (John Kasich), a one-time 2012 presidential frontrunner (former Sen. Rick Santorum), and a 20-year congressional veteran (Sen. Lindsey Graham) will be left in the cold.
“It’s the last two spots that are the big question. It’s a crapshoot, really,” said Patrick Murray, polling director at Monmouth University. Murray pointed out that because poll sample sizes can be on the smaller side, the difference between some candidates getting in or being left out could come down to just half a dozen people.
Those who are looking safe include Trump, with 18% average support, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with 14%, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 10.6%, according to NBC News’ calculation of the latest polling data. Also rounding out the top 10, but pulling single digits, are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (6.2%), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (6%), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (6%), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (5.6%), Carson (5.2%), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (3%) and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (2.2%).
Outside the top 10: Kasich who is only pulling 2%, followed by Santorum (1.6%), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (1.4%), former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (0.8%) and Graham (0.2%).
Winston said those candidates who are polling in the 5% range or less should be worried they may not make it into the top 10.
So how can they crack the top 10? GOPers are employing different strategies. Christie, for example, recently bought $250,000 of advertising time to run on Fox News through Aug. 9. Others, including Graham, Fiorina, and Santorum, are going on a slew of cable television interviews to get more exposure, free of charge.
Others are trying to make news. For example, Rubio and Paul used their Senate perches last week while grilling Secretary of State John Kerry during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran deal.
Then there’s the Trump factor. Some candidates realize the reality star has dominated the news cycle with controversial remarks about undocumented immigrants and Sen. John McCain’s war record – and are trying to jump on that bandwagon by being the one to criticize him.
For example, Perry, who described Trump as a “cancer on conservatism,” promised over the weekend to not “go quietly” on his GOP competitor. And after Trump leaked Graham’s personal phone number, the senator came out with a joking video showing ways to destroy a cell phone.
Graham recently acknowledged the attention he has been getting from criticizing Trump, saying on msnbc’s “Morning Joe”, “If my numbers go up just because I call Donald Trump a ‘jackass,’ that’s not why I want to rise in the polls. The bottom line is I think the criteria in July of 2015 makes no sense. You’re testing celebrity in name ID.”
He's not the only one who sees flaws in the system. “I think in an environment where Donald Trump is sucking out all of the oxygen in the room, it’s hard for candidates to introduce ideas into the debate given the discourse around Trump," said Winston, noting there is some concern that when the debate actually takes place it may be more about Trump than conversation about policy.
Some candidates who look like they are in the danger zone are dismissing the importance of the first debate. Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Santorum, told msnbc that the former senator will not be doing anything differently in the lead up to the debate.
“Last cycle at this time, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were at the top of the national polls, but they didn't win a single delegate. Eight years ago, Rudy Guiliani was leading in the polls. What happens in July stays in July, what happens in February is what matters,” said Beynon. He added Santorum is “building a second-to-none organization in Iowa and he will be prepared to defend his victory there and earn votes when it matters in February.”
Similarly, Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Kasich, said "We remain focused on the early states where the race will be decided. Gov. Kasich moved to 4th in New Hampshire and that was before his announcement. We will continue to focus on the early states."
Other so-called bubble candidates, including Perry, Jindal, Fiorina and Graham, did not respond to requests for comment about their strategy in the lead up to the debate.
Meanwhile, Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer on Sunday defended the upcoming GOP debates in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the “most inclusive setup in history” and arguing without an objective standard like national polling, criteria will become subjective. He also noted, “Debates are not the be-all and end-all. They are just a part of the larger process. Mitt Romney did not participate in the first debate of the 2012 cycle, but he still went on to win the nomination.”
Fox has said it will host a candidate forum in the early afternoon -- not prime-time -- of Aug. 6 for those candidates who don’t make the cut. Other networks are also trying to deal with the GOP’s unusually large and growing field. CNN is holding a debate on Sept. 16. Unlike Fox, CNN will divide the debate in two parts, one with candidates who rank in the top 10 based on polling and another for candidates who garner at least 1% in the polls but are ranked outside the top 10.
MSNBC recently asked debate experts to propose alternatives to make the A&As more inclusive. Here’s what they had to say.