10 Questionable Tactics Not-So-Popular GOP Candidates Are Using to Try to Get Into the First Debate

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Photo: New York Daily News Archive/1937/Daily News, L.P. (New York)

A week from today, ten Republican candidates will grace the stage at the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. Who makes that cut from the field of 16 (wait, 17) will be decided by the polls; Fox News, which is hosting the event, will average five national polls and pick the candidates with the most support.

The other six candidates will take part in a forum earlier on the evening of August 6 — a bit like a warm-up band before the main show. “I think it sucks,” Senator Lindsey Graham, who will definitely not be on the main debate stage, told Morning Joe last week. 

The top-tier debate’s exclusivity has made everyone at the edges of the top ten desperate to be included. Which, as Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion, points out, has led “candidates to alter their behavior” in order to get a chance to stand next to Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.

Miringoff thinks that a better option for doing the first debate would have been dividing the candidates up randomly into two hour-long forums. For now, though, the world is stuck with Fox News’ less-than-perfect experiment — and candidates’ innovative if less-than-elegant methods for hacking it. 

Here are ten ways that Republican candidates have tried to give their campaigns a brief jolt in the polls in order to avoid banishment to the “honorable mention” forum — or at least make sure they don’t lose their slot to someone else.* 

*These strategies have not been evaluated by anyone who has won a presidential election. This guide is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any campaign failures.

1. Talk about how much you hate Donald Trump.

Hey, Donald. I saw your tweet yesterday.”

So starts a video by Rick Perry, who is currently in 11th place in Real Clear Politics’ polling average. The former Texas governor went on to explain why Trump, currently leading the national polls, was wrong about border security. 

In the past few weeks, Perry has also said that “Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded,” and that “Donald Trump does not represent the Republican Party.”

A few other candidates have tried the “dissing the flavor of the month” method of getting into headlines, too. Graham, currently in 15th place, said Trump was “a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community,” and set his cell phone on fire after Trump gave out his number.

2. Challenge your opponents to feats of strength.

On Wednesday, Perry took his Trump-baiting to a new level and dared him to go head-to-head in a pull-up contest. The move raised the intriguing prospect that the Republican primary — like a leadership dispute in a baboon troop — might be decided by sheer physical dominance.

But if Perry’s tactics pay off and he ends up on the debate stage, he may want to be more conciliatory toward the Donald (for starters, not bringing along a chin-up bar). Newt Gingrich offered some advice for those forced to debate Trump: “Do not try to match him in anger and in aggressiveness. It’s not possible. He’s a very instinctively aggressive guy, and if you try to dance with him on his strengths, he’ll run over you.”

3. Compare Obama to Hitler.

Mike Huckabee, hovering in the middle of the rankings, tried perhaps the riskiest strategy for getting more attention when he managed to bring Nazis into his analysis of the Iran deal. The former governor of Arkansas said that President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” He told the Today show earlier this week that “the response from Jewish people have been overwhelming positive.” 

More desperate candidates have not bothered trying to see if this works. 

4. Ride the coattails of a story going viral.

One of the easiest — if also laziest — ways to get people to pay attention to you online is by managing to connect the point you want to make to stories currently going viral. So, if President Obama wanted to make people pay attention to his defense of the Iran deal, he would send out tweets like, “This is better than war! #Deflategate,” or “I trust that John Kerry did a great job on this agreement #CreepyClownInGraveyard.”

Or, if you are a Republican candidate trying to get attention before a big debate, you can explain your views on abortion through an analogy featuring Cecil the Lion Martyr — as Marco Rubio did yesterday. Of course, given that his place in the debate is secure, it’s not quite clear why he was bringing the crazy with his rivals who are on the bubble. Maybe he was just feeling competitive?

5. Throw money at an ad blitz like it’s Election Eve.

A few candidates close enough to the debate stage to smell it are spending gobs of money on national ad buys — cash that the politicians will wish they’d held onto if they make it to the primaries. Chris Christie’s campaign bought $250,000 worth of ad time on Fox News. Other candidates have seen super-pacs run ads on their behalf. For instance, a group of super-pacs supporting Perry have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into ad buys, according to the New York Times.

6. Do something with power tools and the star-spangled banner.

When Senator Rand Paul made a video of himself chopping up the tax code with a chainsaw, he got the headlines he desired — even if he was just stealing a move from the congressional midterm handbook.

7. Call someone much more powerful than you a liar.

Never one to shy away from making enemies in his own party, Senator Ted Cruz accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has definitely not been one of America’s most popular politicians lately — of telling him “a flat-out lie” during a speech at the Capitol last week

8. Occasionally turn your campaign into a pop-culture podcast.

In case voters aren’t impressed by insults made in conspicuous places, Cruz has also done a full-court press on the entertainment front, doing Simpsons impressions and talking about Star Trek and Spider-Man.

9. Wait to declare your candidacy until the last minute so voters won’t yet get sick of you.

Ohio governor John Kasich — currently the man in 11th place in the polls —  just announced his presidential campaign last week. In New Hampshire, Kasich has jumped to fourth place in the polls, and it is very possible that he might eke his way into the first debate. 

10. Inspire pity.

Despite his campaign’s inability to draw much interest from voters, former New York governor George Pataki has managed to flit in and out of the headlines. Unfortunately, these headlines may not be the attention he was looking for: “Why is George Pataki running for president?”; “George Pataki: I Can Win If Voters Pay Attention to Me“; “The Psychology of the Impossible Campaign.”

Pataki won’t be on the main debate stage, but Fox News did feel bad enough about his polling numbers that it opened up the second-tier debate to all candidates — even those polling below one percent. A less-than-sexy debate is better than no debate at all — especially when it seems likely that the same tactics that kept candidates in the prime-time limelight will likely appear on the debate stage. How else are candidates going to compete with this?