CNN Revises Debate Criteria, Fiorina Now Likely To Make The Cut For The Main Debate

CNN has revised its criteria for the main September 16th debate such that Carly Fiorina will now most likely make the cut.

Republican Debate August 6

CNN has made a change to criteria for the main Republican Presidential debate on September 16th that seems to largely be in response to complaints from one candidate about her exclusion under the rules that had previously been established:

CNN is amending the criteria for its Republican presidential debate on September 16, possibly opening the door for Carly Fiorina to join the other top-tier candidates on the stage.

The cause: a lack of national public polling following the August 6 debate has so far provided only three new polls to determine the lineup for the Reagan Presidential Debate, according to a CNN statement.

As a result, CNN reevaluated its criteria and decided to add a provision that better reflects the state of the race since the first Republican presidential debate in August, the network announced Tuesday.

Now, any candidate who ranks in the top 10 in polling between August 6 and September 10 will be included.

The adjustment may result in additional candidates joining the top-tier debate, but the final podium placements will not be known until the eligibility window closes on September 10.

“In the event that any candidate is polling in the top 10 in an average of approved national polls released between August 7th and September 10th, we will add those candidates to our top tier debate, even if those candidates did not poll in the top 10 in an average of approved national polls between July 16th and September 10th,” CNN said in a statement. “We have discussed these changes with the Republican National Committee and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and they are fully supportive.”

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus endorsed CNN’s decision on expanding the number of candidates participating in the second segment of the debate if they qualify.

“I applaud CNN for recognizing the historic nature of this debate and fully support the network’s decision to amend their criteria.”

CNN, which is telecasting the Republican National Committee-sanctioned debate, released criteria for the debate May 20 that outlined specific polls and a timeframe to determine eligibility for this event. As of Tuesday, only three polls recognized by CNN have been released, and it appears there will not be enough to make a fair editorial judgment before the September 16th debate, according to the network.

The network said that from August through mid-September 2007, there were 16 polls released. During the same period in 2011, 15 polls were released. Based on previous poll releases, CNN created its original criteria.

“In May, we announced criteria for our September 16th Republican debates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library,” CNN said in a statement. “We said that we would use the average of approved national polls from July 16th through September 10th to determine the makeup of the debates. At the time, we expected there to be many more national polls following the first Republican debate, in August, than there appears there will be.”

CNN continued, “We learned this week that there will likely be only two more polls by the deadline of September 10th. In a world where we expected there to be at least 15 national polls, based on historic precedent, it appears there will be only five. As a result, we now believe we should adjust the criteria to ensure the next debate best reflects the most current state of the national race.”

All of this is unfolding, of course, in the wake of complaints from Carly Fiornia campaign that the criteria that CNN established back in May would lead to her exclusion from the debate notwithstanding the fact that she has risen in the polls since the August 6th debate. This was largely because, while Fiorina has been averaging around 5% in the polls over the past month, she was averaging closer to 1-2% in the polling prior to the August 6th debate. When all those polls are considered together, she still was averaging below 2% overall, which not only left her out of the top ten but put her behind Texas Governor Rick Perry whose polling numbers have been dropping since mid-July. Fiorina’s campaign argued that it was unfair to use polling from before the first debate, or that it was at least unfair not to give the polling from after the debate a greater weight in determining who would receive an invitation to the main debate. Many pundits on the right echoed Fiorina’s complaints, not the least because they fed into the long standing complaints about the so-called “liberal media.” The fact that CNN had cleared these rules with both the Republican National Committee and the Reagan Library apparently escaped the attention of these critics.

Chris Cillizza argues that CNN had to change its rules:

in truth CNN is really righting a wrong of its initial debate rules. Remember that the first two Republican debates — a top 10 debate and an undercard debate that Fiorina won going away — were on Fox News Channel on Aug. 6. Including polls conducted even in the three weeks before the first debate never made much sense since it robbed a candidate like Fiorina of reaping the full rewards of the momentum she’s enjoyed since then.

By using all polling conducted for two months prior (rather than the five most recent polls, as Fox did), CNN basically assured that its debate stage would look a lot like Fox’s. Combine that with the VERY crowded field — it’s hard to move your numbers much when even big-name candidates are around 5 percent — and CNN was setting itself up for failure.


Fiorina’s likely presence on the CNN debate stage will be a welcome relief to Republicans who fretted privately in advance of the Fox debate that it didn’t look good for their party to have 10 men on stage during a primetime debate, while excluding a female candidate with demonstrated momentum — especially in an election in which Hillary Clinton is widely expected to be the Democratic nominee.

As I said when I first wrote about this, I really didn’t see any reason why they needed to be changed. Cillizza’s criticisms are well-noted, but it would have been just as flawed for CNN to only use the polls that have been released since the first debate. Fox News used criteria similar to that in determining who would receive their invitations and ended up only considering five polls taken over the course of one week. CNN’s criteria sought to take a broader look at the race rather than have the whole process be influenced by a candidate who received a temporary bump in the polls for one reason or another, or by a flawed poll. At the same time, the revised rules at least have some logic to them. CNN does have a valid argument when it points that there will a relatively small number of polls released after August 6th that they will be able to consider in the first place and that they based the original criteria on how many polls had been released in previous election years. That reason alone gives them at least some face-saving reason to change the rules to allow for broader consideration for the polling after the first debate. At the same time, though, it’s rather obvious that the change came about largely because of the Fiorina campaign’s whining, and that the only reason that none of the candidates will challenge rule, which they might be able to do under the relevant FEC rules, is because this change will not result in any other candidates being excluded.

As things stand right now, the main debate on September 16th will consist of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and, thanks to the new criteria, Carly Fiorina. The only way Fiorina would not make the debate at this time would be if she took a massive drop in the remaining national polls that CNN will consider which will be released between now and September 10th. Since that’s unlikely, it looks as those Fiorina’s complaining has paid off. Whether she can make anything out of it at the debate will be up to her.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Just Me says:

    I think it makesess sense for CNN to leave somebody polling in the too 10 and often ahead of half the field on the stage already because of a lack of name recognition before the August debate.

    This seems like a way to put her on the stage but not at the expense of another candidate. In the end 10 candidates on stage at on so is already too many but one more isn’t going to change much. My guess is the majority of the focus will be on Trump anyway and the whole debate will once again feel more like one big GOL press conference than a debate.

    Personally I think it would be far more informative to match candidates up by lots and have a sort of debate off-but with 16 candidates that would require a lot of air time.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    snark tone/ Wonderful /snark tone. In a recent interview Fiorina spoke for four minutes on climate change and failed to say a single thing that is true. She should do great in a Republican debate.

  3. Scott F. says:

    Trump and nine dwarves or Trump and ten dwarves – who cares?

    Until someone who is not Trump steps up and does him some real damage with the base, nothing else matters. Does anyone think Fiorina’s going to be the one who kneecaps Trump?

  4. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    You seem a little miffed about the decision, Doug. Por que?

  5. @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Not miffed. I just don’t think the rule change is necessary. It’s been made though. So, now we’ll The Clown and Ten Dwarfs instead of The Clown and Nine Dwarfs

  6. @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Not miffed. I just don’t think the rule change is necessary. It’s been made though. So, now we’ll The Clown and Ten Dwarfs instead of The Clown and Nine Dwarfs

  7. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: so it’s The Clown and nine Smurfs and one Smurfette.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    Right now, at this point in the festivities, I’d like to see all of them on the stage.
    The entertainment value is tremendous.

  9. Anonne says:

    I don’t mind. I think that the composition should change according to the polling, to keep people who are actually relevant (and I use that term loosely, in this context) in the dialogue. Rick Perry’s flash in the pan is about to expire, why should he not go to the little kids’ table?

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I’ll suggest a reason for miffitude: CNN is now casting the GOP presidential primary. They’re producing a reality show.

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: And this is different from 3 weeks or so ago because….?

  12. JohnMcC says:

    I see from the RCP archives that there were some 15 to 17 polls from early August to early Sept during the 2011-12 cycle of presidential preference.

    I was about to be witheringly sarcastic regarding CNN’s claim that a lack of post-FOX-debate polls had flummoxed their criteria and so actually looked but they are totally accurate about that. How interesting that there is actually less polling this cycle!

    If CNN managers were consistent of course they’d drop off the lowest-polling of the “candidates” on the same polls. But since the main object is not to report on the presidential race but to sell dish wash and tires and sanitary products and mayonnaise, well — it’s sort of in the recipe that no one will be left off who might glue a few eyeballs to the screen.

  13. James Joyner says:

    When I read the headline, I thought CNN was pulling a fast one to get Fiorina on stage. But it actually seems a perfectly reasonable change. The initial criteria were designed to be objective and outside the control of the networks. Alas, the pollsters haven’t been cooperating and providing the necessary data. And, as @JohnMcC notes, this is itself a change from the previous cycle, when much more polling was done.

    I disagree with him that CNN should have thus dropped a candidate for the sake of consistency. If you’re going to change rules midstream, doing so shouldn’t obviously harm one of the competitors. While adding Fiorina slightly damages the other ten candidates by diminishing their exposure, taking a candidate who would have otherwise qualified out of the debate would be much more harmful to said candidate.

  14. Dumb Brit says:

    This is probably be the RNC’s best chance for Trump to do himself some serious damage as he will likely have to respond to somewhat aggressive responses from a female candidate, rather than just journalists. RNC get to look a tiny bit less white and male, whilst CNN win as there is an even bigger chance of fireworks on stage and no candidates are eliminated. The only downside is the early show will be completely devoid of any interest; probably time for them all to retire come 17 September.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Dumb Brit:

    Alas, the pollsters haven’t been cooperating

    I recall reading that some of the polling outfits were unhappy about FOX and CNN using their polls like this and said they’d cut back.

  16. edmondo says:

    Why not just change the rules to include any candidate who has a vowel in their last name?

    Better yet, why not just GOP candidates who actually can offer up a viable solution to a problem, any problem, that the country faces that doesn’t include bombing someone or building a wall? But then the stage would be empty, wouldn’t it?

  17. bill says:

    @gVOR08: oh yeah, the “settled science” that is climate change….funny. so you really believe we can control the weather- just like dr. evil?!

    she is a good speaker though, the general public seem to prefer a slick speaker than someone of true substance. the debates are more about not looking like a mushmouth on national tv than actually bringing something to the table.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @bill: Except for a handful of hired guns and nuts, everyone who is qualified to have a professional opinion on the subject agrees with the broad outlines. Do I accept that as settled? Why yes, I do.

    Do I believe we can curtail the thing we are doing that clearly IS affecting climate? Why yes, I do.

    the general public seem to prefer a slick speaker than someone of true substance.

    Do I believe this explains Fiorina’s rise in the polls? Why yes, I do.

  19. DrDaveT says:


    the “settled science” that is climate change….funny

    Still working on that ‘evolution’ scam, huh bill?

  20. bill says:

    @DrDaveT: i like darwin, wasn’t always right but pretty close. and “fracking” is settled to- so you’re all for it now i assume?

    @gVOR08: so even though most of “the sky is falling” science wonks say we’ve reached the point that we can’t correct anything we’ve already “caused” -we should still ban coal and drive a prius, and all will be well. and what do you do personally about it? do you leave a small carbon footprint and walk to work from your yurt?

    the last 2 dem prez’s were “slick speakers” too- they didn’t actually have to deliver what they “promised” as long as they could talk their way out of it and blame someone else for their failures.