CNN’s Mark Preston joined me at the start of today’s program to explain the amendment to CNN’s debate rules:
HH: I’m joined now by CNN’s Mark Preston where’s he’s executive editor of CNN politics. You can follow him on Twitter, “@PrestonCNN.” Mark, welcome. Carly Fiorina was just with me, congratulating CNN on its decision. I thought you should come on and explain to people the amendment you made today and why you did so.
MP: Thanks for having me. So, this is a very complicated process, obviously, when you’re putting together these presidential debates and trying to forecast who’s actually going to be in the top ten and should be on-stage together, talking. A couple of things. One is, we were trying to be inclusionary – not exclusionary – looking at the current state of the race. Let me just give you some historical analysis and how we decide to put people on the debate or at least have them qualify for it. If you go back to 2011, there were fifteen national polls taken from the first of August to mid-September. In 2007, there were sixteen polls that were taken in that same time period. Currently where we stand right now, there have been only three national polls since the Fox debate which is amazing, especially given the amount of interest given in the race, the amount of people that have watched it. So what we decided to do, although our original criteria -which was drafted back in May and made public and very transparent – what we decided is to amend it. And how we amended it is that we have added an additional qualification to a candidate who is performing well after the Fox debate. I know there’s been a lot of focus on Carly Fiorina and a lot of people think that it will be Carly Fiorina who will be added to the stage. But the bottom line is, we really don’t know who is going to be added to the stage. If the qualifying period were to close today, Hugh, Carly Fiorina would be on the stage. And for all our listeners out there – because this is so complicated – we would not be excluding anybody from the stage. So in fact, instead of ten people on the stage, Hugh, you’re going to get a chance to ask questions of eleven people. But having said that, people could still drop out. People still might not hit the original criteria and they could drop out or somebody doesn’t do well enough to be in the top ten but during this time period to be added to the debate, and I know it’s–
HH: Because the time period is still open, Mark Preston, right? Additional national polls will enter into the mix.
MP: Correct, but the problem is we had gotten some information that there would only be a handful of polls at best, and that’s not a real strong editorial point to help to decide who should be on the stage September 16th at the Reagan Library taking questions from you.
HH: I am very curious, with Jake moderating, it makes his job much more difficult than it does for the panelists and unabashedly, myself. But I am curious as to your opinion as to why the drop-off in the polls because 2011, fifteen polls in a similar period, 2007, sixteen polls. A mere three. What in the world happened?
MP: You got to wonder if it’s an economic decision. I got to tell you, I was surprised because our original criteria went from July 16th through September 10th, and that criteria is going to hold. In that time period so far, we’ve seen a poll – there were several polls before the Fox debate. And now we’ve only seen three after the Fox debate and going after labor day, it’s traditionally been a time where you do a lot of polling because you want to find out – people are going back to school, they are zoning more into the current state of politics, and quite frankly, the current state of affairs – and then for us to hear that there only going to be a few more polls in a couple of weeks of September really did puzzle us. And that’s what really caused us, Hugh, to take a step back and say “What can we do to right the decision, but yet not penalize anyone who’s run a decent campaign from July on.
HH: And Mark Preston, it also occurred to me – I said this to Carly Fiorina – a news organization has to be both fair to everyone who’s been involved with the rules as originally published, but also aware of a changing news environment so that they’re fair to the audience that is interested. I think you threaded that needle. I have not heard any criticism of this. None. Have you?
MP: No, but you know something, Hugh? There’s always going to be folks out who are going to be critical and say that you had dug your heels in a week earlier and said that you were not going to change your criteria, but as you know, in the news business it’s hard for us to hold other people accountable or suggest that they should in fact make changes if they feel like it’s in the proper good in us not follow suit. So we sat down when we found out the information that there was only going to be a few more polls left. It really was – it just made sense that we had to at least look at it. And again, I know Carly Fiorina is going out there and saying that she’s going to be in the debate. And look, quite frankly, she might, but we don’t know that yet. I think a lot of people think that this is the “Willy Wonka ticket” that she has been given it. Not necessarily true. We’ll see what happens. If she does, that would be great. If she appears in our first debate as well, that would be great as well.
HH: If she does – I just asked her – does it become the Trump-Fiorina show, and she said no, not necessarily, but he is the front-runner. In other words, the audience is going to be pretty significant, Mark Preston, so I think it was necessary to make a amendment just to reflect what you’ve been hearing and a news organization cannot be deaf to what its audience is saying, can it?
MP: No, absolutely not. It is our job to try to create fair criteria, of course, and nonpartisan and try to put the right people up there. It’s hard. Hugh, you understand? It is understand and I’ve done this since 2006 at CNN and believe me, you take more arrows than you do pats on the back, that you just try to do the right thing, and in the end, the right thing is the only thing you can do. And again, this is one of those situations where there will be critics that say “Oh, you’re trying to help Carly Fiorina, yada-yada-yada.” The fact is, we’re not trying to help Carly Fiorina. We’re just trying to put an accurate snapshot of the race where we are right now – at the same time – trying not to penalize anyone who has a decent campaign through the summer leading into September, if they all qualify.
HH: Mark Preston, you’ve done this since 2006?
MP: Isn’t it amazing? We did five Republican presidential debates, Hugh, back in 2011 going into 2012. I have done probably twenty presidential debates. It’s amazing.
HH: That’s like a dog year in journalism. That’s (laughs). . .
MP: I know, I know. I got to get out right (laughs)?
HH: I had no idea. I thought you picked this up as other duties as assigned. I really did not know that. We’re going to send you some fruit baskets or something (laughs). Mark Preston, thank you for joining me and explaining to the audience the slight shift. Any other changes we need to know about?
MP: No. I’m really looking forward to you and me being out at Simi Valley with Jake and Dan. I really do think it’s going to be a great debate, and I think there’s going to be a whole lot of policies spoken about, and I really do think it’s worth tuning into because I think people will learn a lot.
HH: They are going to watch it in droves, and they are going to learn a lot. Thank you, Mark Preston, for joining us.
End of Interview