If you didn't make the cut for debate, forget about being president

Story highlights

  • Debate coach Todd Graham: Those excluded from primetime can't expect to win presidency
  • He says people tend to write off candidates once they're left out of the top tier

Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won a national championship for the last three years, and he's been recognized twice as the national debate coach of the year. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Thursday is debate night in America. Well, kind of.

In reality, Thursday in Cleveland at 9 p.m. ET is debate night in America for the eventual winner of the Republican nomination for president. One of 10 men on that stage in Cleveland will win the nomination.
Todd Graham
Why did I say 10 men? There are, as of last count, 17 Republicans vying for president, including a woman, Carly Fiorina.
    It's 10 men because Fox News decided to split up the candidates so that only the top ten candidates in five national polls were invited to participate in the debate. That leaves out seven candidates, including Carly Fiorina. And if you aren't in the debate, you have no chance to become president ... at least not in 2016.
    Yes, there is another debate, being held in Cleveland, but earlier, at 5 p.m. ET. It's for the "other" candidates. But it won't matter. Those candidates left off the main debating stage realistically cannot win the nomination. Why do I seem so confident? The history of debates leaves little doubt. Having a bad debate can hurt a candidate, but not being invited is worse.
    The stigma is rhetorical and visual. The rhetorical stigma is created by the language we're using to describe the candidates excluded from the 9 p.m. debate. Do a quick Google search for the earlier debate, and you'll find phrases like "secondary," "undercard," "second tier," "junior varsity," "fringe" and "kids table" (which I'm sorry to say that I've even repeated).
    Language is a powerful tool (which is one reason why debates matter), and it shapes our reality. These labels sap the confidence away from Republican voters possibly interested in the less popular candidates.
    And there's also a powerful visual stigma. On television, the Internet, newspapers and pretty much everywhere following Thursday night's debate, you'll find pictures of the leading candidates on the debate stage. If you're running for president, and you're not in the picture, well... that's a powerful (negative) signal to potential voters.
    It's a crushing blow because nobody wants to support a dead-end candidate. It's one thing to be down in the polls, but to have that codified in a tangible, screenshot kind of way? Sure, maybe not everyone pays close attention to the polls, but you'd have to be under a rock not to notice if a candidate you might support wasn't even pictured with the "big boys." That does a lot of mental work on voters, and they'll begin to drift toward the top ten. Everyone wants their vote to count.
    In 1980, John Anderson, a Republican turned independent, was going to be included in the general election debates against Ronald Reagan and the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. But Carter balked and refused to debate against Reagan if Anderson was included.
    In the end, Carter only debated Reagan once, and it was without Anderson on stage. Without all three on stage, the impression was that Anderson was not a serious candidate worthy of attention. His polling numbers dropped significantly after that debate and his chances at the presidency were gone. You're not going to be president if you're not worthy of the debates.
    Indeed, this idea that debates matter is so ingrained that the Commission on Presidential Debates (the group which has run the general election debates since 1988) made a rule in 2000 that to be included in the debates, a candidate must have at least 15% of the vote across five national polls.
    The commission understood the power of the debates and worried so much about providing legitimacy to outsiders that they all but guaranteed the debates would remain only for the Republicans and Democrats. After all, this new 15% rule would probably require an outsider to be a billionaire (exact amount to be self-determined by braggadocio) in order to have the wherewithal to run a campaign that could edge above 15%, and that would never happen. Right?
    Actually, it has happened. Before Trump, there was Ross Perot. The two men have a lot in common. Successful billionaire businessmen, both fed up with the decisions and bureaucracy of the federal government.
    In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president of the United States as an independent. And he came much closer than many people remember. Mistakes of his campaign aside (he dropped out in the middle of his run for a short time, which hurt him very much), Perot ended up with almost 19% of the popular vote, and many historians attribute this strong showing to his inclusion and his performance in the presidential debates. The debates gave Perot legitimacy. They provided him a forum where he could be seen next to the other candidates. The thought process was that if he's on stage with Bush and Clinton, then Perot must be a serious contender.
    For those candidates ignored Thursday night, some may say it's to their advantage: They'll get more speaking time in the second-tier event than in the big debate since many candidates in the debate will get very little speaking time. That's an excellent point. Or they will use the snub as motivation in speeches, fundraising, etc. as portraying themselves as the underdog. Another great point.
    If they could make their case in a primetime debate, they'd have a shot. But no amount of fixing can make up for the fact that seven candidates' voices will be silent in an official, Republican National Committee debate.