CNN's decision to add a likely 11th podium spot for its main-stage Republican presidential debate on Sept. 16 is clearly aimed at one person: Carly Fiorina. The move is designed to quiet criticism that the former HP executive might be excluded despite her clear and consistent rise in polling since the first debate last month.
CNN announced Tuesday that it would add a podium for any candidate who averages in the top 10 of polling conducted since the Aug. 6 first GOP debate. The existing rules limited the debate to the 10 candidates who had the best poll averages for nearly two months prior to the debate. That made it very difficult for someone like Fiorina to graduate to the primetime debate, despite her momentum in the polls.
The addition virtually guarantees Fiorina a spot in the debate, barring a collapse in her poll numbers before Sept. 10, the deadline for polls to be included. A 12th candidate could also theoretically be included, though current trends suggest that is unlikely.
(Side note: Adding an 11th spot would also put Donald Trump front-and-center -- by himself!)
But in truth CNN is really righting a wrong of its initial debate rules. Remember that the first two Republican debates -- a top 10 debate and an undercard debate that Fiorina won going away -- were on Fox News Channel on Aug. 6. Including polls conducted even in the three weeks before the first debate never made much sense since it robbed a candidate like Fiorina of reaping the full rewards of the momentum she's enjoyed since then.
By using all polling conducted for two months prior (rather than the five most recent polls, as Fox did), CNN basically assured that its debate stage would look a lot like Fox's. Combine that with the VERY crowded field -- it's hard to move your numbers much when even big-name candidates are around 5 percent -- and CNN was setting itself up for failure.
As you can see from this week-old graph from our own Philip Bump, Fiorina has been on a steady upward march since that debate. Her problem is that there have been only a few polls conducted since the last debate.
Fiorina's likely presence on the CNN debate stage will be a welcome relief to Republicans who fretted privately in advance of the Fox debate that it didn't look good for their party to have 10 men on stage during a primetime debate, while excluding a female candidate with demonstrated momentum -- especially in an election in which Hillary Clinton is widely expected to be the Democratic nominee.
Fiorina's campaign has been applying pressure very publicly -- including in a Medium post on Tuesday afternoon -- as it became clear she would struggle to qualify for the debate.
"We are the audience for this debate, and we will not tolerate a TV network inappropriately influencing our primary process," read Tuesday's missive, signed by dozens of GOP activists and officeholders nationwide.
This was smart politics that put CNN in an unenviable position. And now, CNN has bowed to reality.