Fox News is leaving it up to the polls to decide which candidates will make it to the main debate stage. Some pollsters don’t like that very much.
Fox has said it'll use an average of the last five national polls conducted using “traditional” methodology to determine which 10 of the 17 GOP presidential candidates get to participate in the primetime debate this Thursday. But over the weekend, McClatchy announced that its national pollster, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, had suspended its survey of the GOP primary to avoid being included in Fox's average.
“It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table" for the campaign's inaugural debate, Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, told McClatchy, citing the increasingly theatrical antics to which some lower-polling candidates have resorted in recent weeks. “Now the public polls are affecting the process they’re supposed to be measuring.”
Miringoff has been an outspoken critic of Fox's debate rules. In May, he published a top 10 list of reasons why polls shouldn’t be used to determine who can participate in debates. “Many candidates will fall within the error margin,” he wrote. “Rankings become statistically meaningless."
A Monmouth University poll released Monday made a similar point. That survey asked "Republicans and Republican-leaning voters... who they would support for the GOP nomination for president," according to the release. But Monmouth made a point of noting the uncertainty -- and the high margin of error -- involved with even seemingly straightforward poll questions like this one.
“I suppose Fox hoped that a top tier would emerge by the time the first debate rolled around. But based on current polling, there’s no good rationale for arbitrarily selecting a top ten,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, in the poll’s release.
Miringoff told Rachel Maddow last week that the ideal solution would be to hold two primetime debates, with the candidates randomly assigned among the two.
Monmouth's poll shows that a plurality of Republican voters agree. Forty-five percent said they would prefer to see two debates back to back, with the candidates randomly assigned to appear in one or the other. Only 23 percent chose the format Fox is using, and another 29 percent said that all the candidates should share the same stage. (In an earlier HuffPost/YouGov poll, given a choice between a debate with the 10 highest-polling candidates or a debate that features every candidate in the race, most people said they preferred the former.)
An executive at Fox, which still hasn't announced which specific surveys it plans to include in its average, defended the network's approach to Politico on Monday.
"Common sense would tell you that there is no formal schedule for who releases polls and when. And fairness would tell you that we can't judge any poll until you can see the methodology," said Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news. "When the results are released, everyone will see that common sense and fairness prevailed."
Disclosure: Natalie Jackson, one of the authors of this story, worked for the Marist Institute for Public Opinion prior to joining The Huffington Post.