Rand Paul Likely To Miss Main Stage In Next Week’s Debate, And He’s Not Happy About That

Rand Paul is likely to miss the main stage for next Tuesday's debate, so his campaign is already calling on CNN to change the rules.

Fourth Republican Debate Nov 10 2015

Thanks to poll numbers that have been declining for months now at the national level as well as in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul faces the prospect of being booted from the main stage for the last Republican debate of 2015, which will be held next Tuesday in Nevada, and he’s none too happy about it:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is at risk at being cut from CNN’s prime time Dec. 15 debate, hinted in a Fox News interview Friday night that he would fight to stay in.

“We think if they give us the same treatment that Carly Fiorina was given last time, that you measure from debate to debate, that we do meet the criteria,” Paul told host Eric Bolling in an interview from New Hampshire, where is is campaigning this weekend. “We want the same in equal treatment. We have a first-tier campaign and we don’t plan on being labeled by the mainstream media anything less.”

The debate standards, announced by CNN last month, adopted onl we idea pushed for months by the “undercard” candidates. While prior debates included only the candidates who met a national polling threshold, next week’s debate would allow anyone who averages at least 4 percent in New Hampshire or Iowa to join the candidates polling at 3.5 percent nationally.

In a RealClearPolitics average, Paul has hit the threshold only with a 4 percent showing in Iowa. But CNN’s calculation finds Paul scoring less than that, and the 6 p.m. release of a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll tomorrow could push him either way.

That has left Paul’s camp ready to contest any demotion, with Fiorina’s successful protest of the first CNN debate’s standards as its precedent. The network initially attempted to shrink the stage by inviting only the candidates who met a high-enough average over two long months. Fiorina protested, and CNN buckled, inviting any candidate who hit the top 10 in any national poll.

A “top 10” rule, if followed for the Las Vegas debate, would clearly bring Paul onto the main stage. But unlike Paul, Fiorina had many Republicans pulling for her to change the rules, and put a spotlight on the only woman in the primary. There’s less obvious solidarity with Paul, a libertarian-leaning critic of the party’s mainstream. And for some candidates, there is the potential of schadenfreude if Paul is relegated to a debate where Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former New York governor George Pataki could rip into his views on the Patriot Act and national security.

It’s understandable why Paul’s campaign would be eager to fight for a spot on the main stage on Tuesday. As it is, Paul’s campaign has been slipping into relative irrelevance over the past several months notwithstanding the fact that he has at least managed to remain on the prime time debate stage thanks to qualification criteria that have been slightly more generous than those that CNN is relying upon this time around. In terms of both poll numbers and fundraising, Paul is well behind candidates such as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and even Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee. Even months ago, the Kentucky Senator’s under-performance at the Presidential level was leading some Republicans back home in Kentucky to call on him to put the Presidential aspirations aside and concentrate on re-election to the Senate. While concerns about the vulnerability of his Senate seat have lessened after the outcome of the statewide elections in Kentucky that saw several top Democrats lose their bids for election, failure to qualify for the main stage debate less than two months before primary voting starts is likely to restart the calls for Paul to reconsider his plans for 2016.

As it stands, the Paul campaigns efforts to get CNN to reconsider the rules to allow Paul onto the main stage seem unlikely to succeed. Under the criteria CNN established originally, a candidate must have an average of 3.5% nationally in an average of the polls that the network is consulting which were taken during the period from October 29th to December 13th, or a 4.0% in an average of the recognized polls out of Iowa and New Hampshire during the same period. Paul does not meet the criteria under either measure. When CNN decided to modify its rules to allow Fiorina on the main stage in September, it did so by considering the polling from the period after the first debate, during which Fiorina’s performance in the undercard debate led to a significant bump in the polls for her. The problem for Paul is that even if you take the polling nationally, in Iowa, and New Hampshire from the time of the last debate on November 10th, Paul still doesn’t meet the criteria. That, of course, is why the Paul campaign is calling for a “Top Ten” rule. As I’ve noted before, though, having ten candidates on the debate stage just tends to make the debate chaotic and uninformative, which is why CNN’s decision to tighten the criteria at this late stage of the campaign was a good idea. Additionally, it’s arguably the case that such a drastic change to the criteria would be impermissible under Federal Election Commission regulations, which require ” pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in a debate.” The change that CNN made to include Fiorina in the debate was not a major change, but changing to a “Top Ten” rule at this point would likely be considered such a change and could expose CNN and the RNC to charges of an FEC violation.

Paul isn’t the only candidate facing relegation to the undercard debate, of course. Mike Huckabee’s poll numbers have sunk so far that he will without question end up at the Kids Table again. Additionally, notwithstanding her performance in the recent WMUR poll in New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina remains below the cutoff at both the national and state level according to my estimation, which admittedly may be different from how CNN is calculating things. At the moment then, the only candidates who seem guaranteed to get an invitation to the main stage debate are Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and, thanks to their performance in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, John Kasich and Chris Christie. That leaves us with a main debate stage of seven candidates, which seems far more manageable than what we saw when this whole debate process started.

In any case, we have one more day for any relevant polling to be released, and I suppose it’s possible that Paul and/or Fiorina will do well enough to push them over the top. Based on the numbers right now, though, it doesn’t seem likely.

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. Mark Ivey says:

    What would John Galt do??

  2. Moosebreath says:

    If you can’t get what you want any other way, whining about unfair rules seems like just the appropriate idea for a “libertarian-leaning” candidate, right?

  3. James Joyner says:

    It’s really hard to justify excluding sitting senators and governors from the debates before anyone has gotten to vote. It would make sense to have more frequent, smaller debates vice the “kids’ table” approach. That’s especially true in a cycle where weird celebrity candidates with no governing experience are leading the polls.

  4. Neil Hudelson says:

    If Paul really wanted to be at this debate, maybe he should’ve shown up to the last…all of them.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    Huckabee’s still in the race? How many do we still have at the kids’ table? Walker, Jindal, and Perry bailed out, and Carly got promoted (but looks to have bounced back down again.) I guess Christie is still around as well. And how does Kasich merit a spot at the grownup’s table? I thought he was polling somewhere down in the 1% range.

    I have to say, most of the teeny-weeny candidates must be afflicted with acute delusion about their chances, or they’re in there just to grift money from the rubes.

  6. Davebo says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s really hard to justify excluding sitting senators and governors from the debates before anyone has gotten to vote.

    What metric would you suggest? Because obviously you can’t have a debate in two hours between 15 candidates.

    Should they be forced to allow Jindal as well? He is a sitting governor even if his home state hates him.

  7. Stonetools says:

    At this stage, there shouldn’t even be a kids table debate. Honestly after several cycles, the polls have made it clear that the public really doesn’t want to hear from the bottom rated candidates. It’s time for them to wake up and smell the public indifference. It’s a mystery who anyone polling below 4 per cent is still running.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Stonetools: It’s a living.

  9. Slugger says:

    @gVOR08: Please expand on this, or perhaps one of the PolySci PhD’s could speak up. I want to be a good citizen and think that I need to understand the system to do that. Does being an also-ran with single digit levels of support create any clout or channel money to a politician’s campaign chest or personal pocket? I understand why a nonpolitician like Fiorina might do it as a vanity project especially if other people donate money; also a Jindal or Huckabee uses it to stave off the decline into irrelevance. However, Sen. Paul or even Sen. Graham risk being tainted with the stink of “loser” that seems to have sunk JEB. If I’m a serious politician and things are going this poorly, I make up some story about needing time with my family and wait for a better opportunity.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @Slugger: That’s why you can probably label all the <4% candidates as "deluded" or "grifters". Or both.

    Heck, I'd put Ben Carson in the latter category as well because of the burn rate of the ca$h he's taken in…something like 90%? That's not the mark of a good planner who's in the race for the long haul. He'll stick around as long as he can use the "running for POTUS" as a hook to get money from his clueless supporters, but expect him to bail out after he fails to get the golden ring in the first few primaries.

    What will be fun to watch will be the epic meltdown if Cruz trumps Trump in Iowa. Expect a lot of kicking of walls, screaming, insistence that everyone in Iowa is "an idiot!"

  11. Tyrell says:

    Ron Paul – that was predictable
    It all fits in.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: James, I get your frustration that the Republican electorate doesn’t seem interested in anyone with actual experience, but that is the reality. Nearly two thirds are saying loud and clear that they are only interested in how a candidate makes them feel, and the angrier the better.

    A big slice of blame goes to the incredible rise in Republican circles of the campaign professionals. These clowns whisper in the ears of delusionals like Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul or Kaisich and convince them they are viable and then start fundraising off of them. The election laws have made it even worse because a bunch of parasites can just set up a PAC and start raising money. I just read that a Cruz PAC had raised over $3M and spent less than 2% on anything other than their own expenses. These are the guys that are really ginning up the lies and fear factor in the campaigns. They have no interest in anything but the money they raise regardless of how they raise it and don’t view the candidates themselves as anything other than useful idiots. They certainly are not worried that the lies they tell or the hysteria they generate may harm ‘their candidate’ in the long run.

    Sending money to anyone other than the campaign itself is foolish, and that’s true on both the D&R

  13. anjin-san says:

    I’m sure Rand and his supporter are very disappointed.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Slugger: I can’t expand much, I don’t understand it myself, but it sure appears to be true. And I think it’s more of a campaign finance thing than a poly sci thing.

    There are the obvious cases like Herman Cain and Ben Carson doing it as a book campaign. There’s the example of Sarah Palin who’s been able to rake in millions for years on the notoriety of having unsuccessfully campaigned for VP. When Gingrich ran (’08 or ’12 or both?) it seemed pretty obvious he was promoting his brand to benefit his RW book and video grift production company. I suspect Santorum is running so he can raise money and pay off some of his ’12 campaign debt. And if a Foster Friess says, here, I’ll give you millions to run, what are you going to do? And apparently it’s possible to make good money on the speaking circuit for years on the notoriety of having run.

    I guess at a minimum you can raise money and spend a year or two traveling with your expenses paid, making friends and building up your personal brand, and maybe there are ways to get some of the money to stick to your fingers.

    I’m mostly speculating. I’d love to see someone with real knowledge discuss this. I can kind of understand a Jindal or Graham staying in until someone says ‘no more money’, as apparently happened to Scott Walker. And I can understand there are a faithful few who will keep chipping in small donations. But why does anyone put serious money into lost causes? A sitting Senator or Governor like Graham or Paul or Kasich still has influence to peddle. But Jindal looks to be politically dead and Fiorina, Santorum, and Pataki have no real influence.

  15. @James Joyner:

    I don’t disagree in principle. The problem this year, I think, is the unusually large size of the GOP field, larger than any I can remember in the time I’ve been following politics. As I’ve said before, ten people on a stage was proving not to be entirely manageable or conducive to allowing candidates to actually answer questions. Had there been one debate with all the candidates that were in the race, which at one point was as high as seventeen, it would’ve been much worse.

    The multiple debate format — with participation being decided by some sort of random lottery — is one that several people suggested once it was clear that the field was going to be so large. For whatever reason, none of the networks or debate sponsors went down that road. I suspect the primary reason for that is that few networks would have been eager to give up that much airtime, although the increased ratings for this year’s debates suggests they might have actually attracted decent ratings.

    Now that we’re closer to actual voting, though, it does make some sense to concentrate the debate on the candidates who actually appear to have a realistic chance of winning the nomination. Guys like George Pataki, for example, are already failing to qualify for the ballot in several states, and probably won’t be in the race much longer. I’m not sure it makes sense to spend as much time on them as, say, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, Bush, or Christie as well as, well, that guy who is unfortunately leading in the polls.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    I think this is an accurate image of Jeb’s chances…

    I get the feeling that if anyone but Trump comes out as the official candidate, we’re going to get a lot of We Wuz Robbed from his fanbois. I think that’s what Cruz is counting upon–that he can be considered a “serious candidate” all the while picking up Trump’s support once the RNC has found some way via their arcane rules to keep Trump off the ballot.

    The fact that Cruz inspires even the republicans to throw dead cats at him has never crossed his mind.

  17. ernieyeball says:

    @Moosebreath:..whining about unfair rules seems like just the appropriate idea for a “libertarian-leaning” candidate, right?

    Well, if it works…

    Asked about Mr. Paul’s inclusion, Lauren Pratapas, a CNN spokeswoman, said: “In the light of new polling released this morning and in the spirit of being as inclusive as possible, CNN has decided to include Sen. Rand Paul in the prime-time debate.”