The GOP Undercard Debates Are For Losers, Right?

Undercard debates 2

If you watched the last GOP debate on October 28, the bad taste you were left with probably still lingers in your mouth. Your frustration is not aimed at the candidates so much as at CNBC’s “moderators”, or at the Chairman of the Republican National Committee himself, Reince Priebus. This GOP debate season has been chaotic and exhausting, and there are still eight scheduled events left, including the ones on Tuesday, November 10.

Tuesday’s two debates will look different than previous ones, as reported by FOX News:

In a change, Christie and Huckabee ‎did not qualify for the prime-time event, while former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina [mc_name name=’Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’G000359′ ] did not qualify for either; neither did ex-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

To qualify for the prime-time debate, a candidate had to score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent national polls. Candidates scoring under that had to receive at least 1 percent support in at least one of the four most recent national polls to qualify for the 7 p.m. debate.

Personally, I’ve wondered why we even have undercard debates. If you can’t score a 2.5% or higher to qualify you for the “big leagues”, shouldn’t you be sidelined? There is no reason to include everyone just because there are many candidates. What’s more, the second tier debate starts at 7 p.m. EST, so a large portion of the country is either not off of work yet, or is just getting off of work. Their number one priority is perhaps not watching individuals debate who have scored between 1.00% to 2.49% on last week’s polling. Regardless of whether or not I like it, the impact of the debates – both tiers – is questionable. US News & World Report has recently wondered about this, too:

…even for those candidates who have under- or over-performed at the events and received notable coverage for doing so, the impact has been imperceptible.

The exception to the above is Florida [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ]. He has recently gained more support for his candidacy, in part because of his debate performances, which have been consistently solid. However, although he has risen in the polls, he still remains in the middle of the field. If he continues to do well, he may be able to stay there, but ultimately something else will have to happen for him to overtake Trump and Carson. The debates alone won’t get him there.

That’s just it. Debates alone don’t do much to bring a permanent increase in a candidate’s standing among unpersuaded voters. Debates seem a lot like cheering on your favorite sports team. You might get aggravated with them during a game, or agree that the opposing team made a good play, but ultimately you come away with your original thinking largely intact. While Carly Fiorina seems like an exception, the obvious gain for her (the only candidate to make a leap between the two venues) was decidedly short-term. After a smashing performance in August’s undercard debate, Fiorina rocketed to the main stage in September. However, she has since lagged behind for a variety of reasons.

In the last debate, on October 28, each candidate’s amount of speaking time on the main debate stage was relatively small. According to Inside.Gov as reported by Time, Fiorina and Rubio each held the most time with about 10 minutes, while [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] came in last with approximately 6 minutes. What is 10 minutes or 6 minutes over the course of a campaign? Do those few minutes matter less at an undercard debate? As previously stated, it’s difficult to believe debates do much to sway anyone to abandon ship and support a different candidate.

Debates highlight what we already know of candidates, but give us the ability to see them deliver their platforms live while surrounded by their opponents. In that respect, the undercard and main event debates are for the most part no different from one another. It seems clear that support is garnered by what happens off either stage, and the “winners” and “losers” are ultimately found there.