Sixteen candidates. Ten chairs. Next up on the "Hunger Games," it’s debate season.
For the Republican Party, the upcoming month is going to be a cutthroat game of musical chairs as the uber-crowded GOP field vies for a spot on the first primary debate stage August 9. According to the rules set by the debate host Fox News, only candidates polling in the top 10 in national polls will be allowed on the stage — a measure of legitimacy for those contenders. One that will also bring money and momentum.
The next 30 days, campaign strategists say, will be an all-out war: In order to distinguish themselves and win a spot in the coveted "gang of 10," campaigns are going to spend big bucks and the candidates are going to throw rhetorical bombs every which way in hopes of upping their name recognition in national polls and growing their base fast.
“You have to light yourself on fire, and you’re going to see candidates do that to try to get attention,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod told msnbc. “They’re gonna have to do handstands, juggle, swallow swords and flames in order to get attention.”
Strategists said the competition for a spot on the debate stage has put the Republican Party in the same, unenviable position it was in during the 2012 race: A crowded field showcases more conservative rhetorical bomb-throwers while more moderate, viable general election candidates are overshadowed. If current polling holds, the GOP’s only female candidate (Carly Fiorina), a well-respected senator from South Carolina (Lindsey Graham), and the governor of one of the nation’s most important swing states (Ohio's John Kasich) won’t make the stage — but Donald Trump will.
"If they were trying the avoid the spectacle of the debate stage, they have failed miserably," Democratic strategist Anita Dunn said of the GOP.
Some strategists argue that state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early contest states would be a fairer measure of a candidate's viability.
“National polling at this point is largely a joke. It’s just a lot of people who do polling making a lot of free money, because, number one, voters aren’t engaged. Number two, voters aren’t engaged, and, number three, no one cares,” former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele told msnbc.
“If you’re trying to get attention right now, you’re screaming fire in a movie theater,” Dunn said. “That is what they’re trying to avoid, it is a no-win situation for the Republican Party right now.”
In the wake of the 2012 presidential contest, the GOP released a so-called "autopsy" report in which party leaders publicly vowed to become more inclusive and more welcoming to a broader coalition of voters outside the party's core base of older, white voters. That’s not what we’ve seen in the last few weeks, however, with 2012 contenders like Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gov. Bobby Jindal slamming the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling and Trump's assertion that immigrants from Mexico are criminals and "rapists."
You can also expect to see political ads starting way earlier than usual on Fox News and in early voting states. Campaigns and super PACs supporting specific candidates will start spending big bucks in the coming weeks to try and boost their poll numbers, thanks to the urgency the debates have put on early-stage campaigns.
In Iowa, the super PAC supporting Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal shelled out $502,000 for a two-week ad buy stateside in Iowa — a hefty purchase likely designed to boost the Louisiana Republican, who is polling nationally in single digits, if at all — in the polls.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio planned a $7 million ad buy for later in the year and seems prepared to invest unusually early in those early voting states. A handful of television stations have balked at his plans, saying it’s too early to even know what would be a fair market price for such ads.