There is a component of the Republican candidates' apparently now-scuttled complaints about the debate process that has complete validity: Polls are an odd and fluky way to determine the relegation of candidates to particular chunks of television time.
It's obvious, too, why the networks do it. From the start, Fox News, the host of the first debate, wanted to both ensure that they had a manageable system for allowing the candidates to talk and share their views and to ensure that people would tune in. If you're not going to split up the field into two debates randomly -- risking people tuning in for the Donald Trump debate and not the other one -- polls are as objective a way to do it as possible. So that is what has stuck.
Next week, we've got another debate -- the fourth in the series -- and the hosts, Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal, have articulated how the polls will drive who appears where. Candidates polling over at or over 2.5 percent in the four most recent national polls get to play in the big game. Anyone who's under 2.5 percent but has gotten 1 percent in one of those polls goes to the junior debate. Everyone else is out of luck.
But then there's another part to the description. "Such polling must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques (i.e. live interviewers, random-digit-dial sampling techniques and include both landlines and cell phones)," the criteria read. You can spot the subjective part of that. "Major." "Nationally recognized."
The five most recent polls are ones from Fox News (which we assume Fox Business will use), Quinnipiac University, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily and CBS/New York Times. It's fair to ask if the Investor's Business Daily poll counts as "major." And if it does or doesn't, there are implications.
Excluding the people who are clearly in, here's what the different poll numbers look like depending on whether or not you include IBD.
Chris Christie is almost certainly out. But Mike Huckabee is either in or out, depending on whether or not Fox Business uses that poll. We'll see!
Update: And here we have it. Christie and Huckabee move to J.V. Lindsey Graham, whose 2 percent in the CBS/Times poll was erased thanks to the inclusion of the IBD poll, doesn't appear in either debate. That means that some people on the main stage are getting outpolled by J.V. debaters in Iowa.
The good news for Christie and Huckabee is that it might not matter. Comparing the Real Clear Politics polling average for the day of the debate to the average two weeks later (or the most recent number for the third debate), you can see that there's not a great deal of change.
Carly Fiorina surged -- but it's left her in sixth place. Scott Walker dropped in the polls and is now gone. But he fell four points, losing a third of his support, in the week before that first debate. Trump has consistently dropped in the aftermath of each debate, but it doesn't seem to have hurt him much.
For those in the Huckabee-Christie tier, though, there's not been much change. Only Carly Fiorina has moved between debates, so it's hard to know what relegation will mean for Christie. But there's not yet evidence that it will mean much.
There's another factor: Viewership is down substantially. The CNBC debate was watched by fewer people than the Democratic debate, Trump's presence notwithstanding. (Think about that. More people saw Jim Webb debate than saw Trump debate on CNBC.) That lowers the stakes yet again.
There are a lot more debates, and future debates will have fewer participants, meaning that the era of polls and junior debates will at some point end. In the meantime, in the day-to-day trench war that is this odd primary season, candidates and campaigns will struggle over fractions of percents reflected in polls from little-known news outlets. C'est la guerre.