Welcome to the GOP kids' table: Why the second-tier debates aren't a death knell

Six candidates will miss out on the first primetime debate. Is that really such a terrible thing?

Published July 21, 2015 4:36PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin/Rick Wilking/Brendan McDermid)
(AP/Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin/Rick Wilking/Brendan McDermid)

We're about two weeks out from the first GOP presidential debates and oh god this is so exciting. We here at Salon Dot Com consider it our first priority to inform the American consumer, and right now we'd urge you to stock up on popcorn *today* before the nation's entire stock dries up.

There will be two debates on August 6 in Cleveland: a grown-ups' table and a kids' table. The top ten candidates in an average of the five most recent national polls will debate on Fox during primetime; everyone outside the top ten will hash it out earlier in the day.

As of now, the fields break down like so: sitting at the grown-ups table would be Donald Trump (lol), Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Rick Perry; the LOSERS confab would feature John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham.

The institution of debate caps set off an intense process for candidates to build name-recognition by either performing dumb stunts or just going on Fox News all the time instead of working traditional retail politics in Iowa or New Hampshire. And yet the makeup of the two debate pools has remained mostly consistent over the past month or so -- a lot of which might have to do with Donald Trump soaking up so much of the oxygen in political media and freezing the sorting process elsewhere.

The belief out there now is that we should expect candidates along the margin to perform even more bizarre attention-grabbing stunts over the next two weeks in order to secure placement in the main event. That's correct and we're glad it's the case, because it will be funny. But with the field so large and Trump soaking up so much of the limited press, it's hard to see there being a lot of down-field movement. (One exception might be John Kasich, who's banking on his late entry to give him a boost.)

Should the candidates who don't make the cutoff really consider their exclusion the end of the world and spiral off into depression? Perhaps if you're a candidate who's already struggling for a boost, relegation into the lesser debate should be treated as an opportunity.

One concern about the consolation debate was that it would take place, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the day at 1 p.m. That would still be good enough to reach most political reporters, but the wider public would mostly miss it. Politico reports, though, that Fox has moved the debate to 5 p.m. That means that loyal viewers of hit Fox News sensation "The Five" will have to miss a day -- alas -- but audience for the debate will approximately double.

Fox also announced, however, that it's cutting the debate to one hour instead of 90 minutes. But that brings in another advantage of the junior-varsity debate: there will only be six people in it! Candidates will still have an average of 10 minutes to the nine minutes that those in the varsity debate will enjoy.

No one expects each of the top-ten candidates to really have nine minutes apiece, though. Which brings us to the real advantage of the second-tier debate: the total lack of Donald Trumps in participation. The primetime debate will just be Donald Trump talking for 90 straight minutes about filthy Mexicans, how much John McCain sucks at war for getting captured, the voluminous sales of a certain 1980s business book, and various new properties to which he's leased his name rights and may or may not own shares in. What is the advantage for the other candidates? What do they get -- the occasional interjection? Is there really much of an advantage for Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, or Chris Christie to placement in this debate?

The second-tier debate offers a candidate who needs something, like John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, or (omg) George Pataki, the opportunity to play big fish in a small pond. There will be many more opportunities to get in word. Media coverage the next day, of course, will be entirely dominated by analysis of Trump's performance, but there will at least be another strand about which lower-tier candidate shone in the earlier debate. (And the earlier debate itself will get several hours of exclusive coverage before Trump et al. take the stage.)

The conversation is always more lively at the kids' table.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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