Politics & Policy

Priebus Calls Meeting in Milwaukee to Discuss Debate Changes

RNC chairman Reince Priebus (WIn McNamee/Getty)

Reince Priebus has called for a meeting with select Republican National Committee members in Milwaukee Wednesday morning — after Tuesday night’s pair of GOP debates — to discuss changes to the qualification guidelines for future debates.

Specifically, sources with knowledge of the meeting say, the RNC chairman and his members want to settle on a strategy for convincing the networks to make two changes to their qualification guidelines: raising the cutoff percentage in polling, and using early-state polls instead of national ones.

There will also be continued discussion about the appropriate time to discontinue the undercard debates.

The meeting will take place at the Milwaukee Athletic Club, and will be attended by Priebus, his senior staff, and the 13 members of the RNC’s Debate Committee. Party officials stress that the proposed changes to be discussed can only be made with the consent of the networks, as campaign-finance laws prohibit the party from enforcing rules that could potentially help or hinder individual campaigns.

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Priebus had scheduled the meeting even before Thursday’s surprise announcement from FOX Business — which is hosting Tuesday’s event in Wisconsin — that Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee failed to qualify for the primetime stage, and would participate in the undercard debate with Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum. (Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore failed to qualify even for that event.)

#share#But the unexpected debate shakeup added a layer of urgency to the RNC’s task. Committee officials were flooded with complaints Friday from campaign staffers angry about FOX Business’s decision to include as part of its selection criteria several national polls that failed to list every candidate as a choice for respondents. The usage of two polls — NBC/Wall Street Journal, and Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP — kept Huckabee off the main stage and Graham out of the undercard.

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Still, it was the exclusion of Christie, one RNC official said, that troubled party officials most. Many felt he was among the strongest performers in the most recent Colorado debate, and he’s gained momentum since, with a WBUR poll of New Hampshire this week showing him in the thick of the race at 8 percent there. But Christie’s standing in that first-in-the-nation primary state doesn’t matter as long as networks insist on using national-polling data. The same is true for Jindal, who has steadily risen in Iowa polls over the past several months but remains mired at the bottom of nationwide surveys.

With CNN hosting the next debate Dec. 15 in Las Vegas, it’s unclear whether RNC leadership will ask the network to base its participation guidelines on polling only in that state, or on an aggregate of early-state surveys in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina as well.

#related#As for the cutoff percentage, party officials are hoping to get the threshold raised from 3 percent — which it was in Colorado, and will be again in Milwaukee — to 4 or 5 percent in order to winnow the number of participants in the main event. Shrinking the main event in December could set the precedent for an even smaller primetime stage at the two debates in January — one in Iowa, and one soon-to-be-announced at Liberty University in Virginia — prior to the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1.

Raising the cutoff percentage would push more candidates off the main stage. But party officials feel confident that if such determinations are based on early state polling — which is what the campaigns have advocated for all along — there will be no grounds for complaining.

That assumes, of course, that CNN and other networks will continue to host undercard debates as a soft landing for those candidates who fail to make the cut. But, RNC members caution, that topic will also be on the agenda Wednesday morning in Wisconsin.

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.

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