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Politics & Government

Fox News' Debate Selection Method Is Not Without Critics

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When David Letterman was still hosting the "Late Show," it usually wasn't a good thing if a politician landed on his top 10 list. But here's a top 10 list Republicans tried really hard to get on, the 10 who will take the stage for the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Fox News is hosting the debate on Thursday and has just announced who will be participating, and NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro is here to tell us more.

Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi Audie.

CORNISH: So who made the cut?

MONTANARO: Well, as we've seen all along, Donald Trump is still the national leader, hitting more - almost double anybody close to him. You have Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who round out the top tier so to speak because they're in double digits. And then you have seven others who are in there - you look at Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Now, what's interesting about Christie and Kasich is they actually spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads on Fox nationally and other national networks to boost their ratings, and they succeeded.

CORNISH: So then who didn't make the cut?

MONTANARO: Well, the controversial one is Rick Perry, who's the former governor of Texas. And he didn't make the cut by maybe just a percentage point. I think he had, like, 1.8 percent, as far as their polling went. And Kasich had, like, 3.2, which is really inside the margin of error, and Perry could certainly have an argument that he should be in, but he's not. Rick Santorum, who was the former senator from Pennsylvania and the runner-up in 2012 effectively, he's off the stage. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, and the only woman in the race is out, as are George Pataki and Jim Gilmore, also governors of New York and Virginia, respectively.

CORNISH: Let's step back and talk about how Fox made this election - because it hasn't been without controversy.

MONTANARO: It hasn't been without controversy, that's absolutely true. I mean - and first I should say that some of these candidates will wind up being on the stage for an earlier forum at 5 o'clock on Fox that day. But the controversy here really surrounds the methodology of picking these folks because they took the average of the last five polls nationally. Of course, national polls don't even really factor in when you look at the early states that decide these things. Plus, some pollsters, like Marist and Monmouth University who polled nationally, just decided that this was really an inappropriate way to pick people because really, the two things that you look at that really skew these numbers can be the margin of error. When you look at everyone from five down to 15, they're all really within a margin of error, and all could have an argument for being on that stage. And also, early polling really tells us a lot about who do you know? Like, do you know this person? Hence Donald Trump. And he's in the debate because a lot of people know his name, know who he is. And those people further down the list have a much harder time getting on the stage.

CORNISH: Well, the decision is made. The stage is set. Strategically, what are you looking for in this debate? What do the candidates have to do?

MONTANARO: Well, of course Donald Trump is the big question and whether or not he can present himself presidentially. He's never been in a debate. Do the candidates go after him? It's going to be interesting to see the two people who have actually taken a lot of shots at him - Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham - are off the debate stage. The other thing that's really interesting to watch for me, you know, not a lot of people have really said that they like these candidates. Whether it's Republicans or Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, they've really struggled on their favorability ratings. And this is a chance, at least for Republicans, to be able to sort of turn that aircraft carrier of public opinion around when people are really looking with a skeptical eye toward politics and politicians.

CORNISH: That's NPR's political editor, Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.