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Opinion: Too Early to Count Christie Out for Republican TV Debates?

The governor’s single-digit polling numbers could cost him a slot on Fox and CNN debates for Republican presidential hopefuls

carl golden
Carl Golden

Polling, the late nationally syndicated political columnist Robert Novak once said dismissively, is like taking your temperature every morning. Campaign consultant and strategist Ed Rollins sarcastically opined that the only reason to hold elections was to determine whose poll was right.

Fairly or not, the obsession with polls is so deeply embedded in the political culture that it’s become the standard by which a candidate’s viability is measured and exerts a disproportionate influence on whether that candidate should even continue the quest for office.

Polling data has achieved such prominence and weight that at least two TV networks -- Fox and CNN -- have adopted it as a qualifying factor for participation in their sponsored debates among candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

This turn of events is of some concern to Gov. Chris Christie who -- though he has yet to declare his intentions -- has nonetheless ramped up his activities and out-of-state-travels as he struggles to break out of the second tier of potential and announced candidates. At last count, he held eighth place, close to the networks’ established cutoff for the 10 candidates with the highest average poll numbers who will be invited to share the debate stage.

The lingering shadow of the Bridgegate scandal, coupled with the ongoing budget and fiscal difficulties, have contributed significantly to Christie’s weak poll standings and show no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

In an effort to broaden his appeal, Christie has offered a series of addresses on both domestic and foreign policy and has taken a decided lurch to the right, trashing Common Core educational standards and suggesting to a South Carolina audience earlier this week that if it was up to him rather than a Democratic Legislature, gun-control restrictions would be loosened and the demands of gun-rights advocates would receive a more sympathetic ear.

That both are at odds with positions he’s taken as recently as a year ago has sent his critics into outrage mode, leveling accusations of pandering and crass political opportunism.

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marc Rubio of Florida virtually assured of a spot in the debates, Christie is in the position of fending off a mixture of senators, former senators, former governors, and private citizens to secure an invitation.

Most of the others, including Christie, have consistently polled in the single digits and within striking distance of one another. The margin of error is excruciatingly slim and a shift of a few points one way or the other can be the difference between standing behind a podium and in front of a television camera or watching it on the big screen in the family den.

The recent entrance into the race of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and sitting Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with the potential candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is particularly worrisome to Christie.

Whatever support they receive will more than likely be siphoned from Christie and others in single digits and have minimum impact on those in the top three or four positions.

Missing the cut would be a devastating blow -- not lethal, perhaps -- but one that would reverberate and affect decisions by major donors looking for a candidate to support, but who would shy away from writing checks to someone unable to demonstrate sufficient strength to qualify for debate participation.

The media, to whom the horserace element of polls overshadows most other considerations, will turn elsewhere as well, concentrating coverage on those with heightened chances of success while relegating others to mentions deep in stories or broadcasts or ignoring them entirely.

Because the Fox-sponsored debate in August is the first, it’s taken on a greater level of importance. The audience will be larger as more people will tune in for their first real glimpse of the candidates and the opportunity to take their measure not only against the opponents but against the viewers’ own perceptions and beliefs.

For those who fail to qualify, the odds of making up the lost ground as the campaign progresses are long, indeed.

While the debates have increasingly become instruments to generate heat rather than create light, the mere act of participation -- the opportunity to be seen by millions of people and share the stage on an equal footing with others whose chances of success are significantly greater -- has overwhelmed any sense of delivering a message or a vision to the American people.

Candidates are exceptionally well prepared, having been schooled for weeks in dealing with questions and endured hours of rehearsals with stand-ins whose role is to harass, intimidate, ridicule, and embarrass.

Absent a major gaffe (President Ford’s assertion in 1976 that Poland was not behind the Iron Curtain, for instance), the debates add little to people’s storehouse of knowledge about a potential president and what he or she would do once in office.

It is ironic that what began in 1960 as a groundbreaking event to bring candidates for president into everyone’s living room has morphed into a media extravaganza in which viewers see and hear the candidates, listen while analysts tell the viewers what they just saw and heard, while each candidates’ team of hired experts tell both analysts and the viewers what they just saw and heard.

Making the cut has become a substitute for insightful debate and discussion; participation outweighs thoughtfulness.

Woody Allen once observed: “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”

For Christie, it’s potentially 100 percent.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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