This Thursday, a bunch of men in suits (and one woman!) will usher in a new phase of the 2016 presidential race, by standing behind lecterns and arguing with one another about Iran and the economy. The first — and most crowded — Republican presidential debate takes place in Cleveland on August 6, hosted by Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum.
Since there are currently 17 (!) major GOP candidates, the night is divided into two phases: The main event, at 9 p.m. EDT, will feature the 10 highest-polling Republican candidates, with everyone else relegated to a smaller stage earlier that evening, at 5 p.m. Fox says it's picking the top 10 by averaging the five most recent national polls, though it's not saying exactly which polls it'll use. "We'll use a range of quality polls accepted by the polling community," Fox's executive vice president for news, Michael Clemente, said in a statement. He added that it won't use "partisan and online polls."
Fox's role in picking the top 10 contenders has generated criticism from early-voting states, as well as from candidates: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, "I think that this is a dumb way to weed out the field" in an interview on Fox News. (It's worth noting that Graham is not likely to make the main stage.) The New Hampshire Union Leader hosted its own event with all but three of the candidates on Monday.
But, despite all that, Thursday's debate is the first big TV event of the political season — and that is exciting. Americans will get a chance to see the GOP field in action for the first time, familiarize themselves withe the lesser-known faces, and watch Donald Trump do...whatever he's going to do. To get primed, we caught up with MacCallum, who is also one of the moderators of the 5 p.m. debate.
So, the debate’s on Thursday. What are you doing to prepare?
Bill [Hemmer] and I host America’s Newsroom together every morning, and we’ve interviewed pretty much every candidate across the board. So we’ve been going back and looking over the interviews we’ve done in the past, and batting around possible questions. With every day, as we get closer, you want to tweak and refine things to be up to speed. it’s been really fun, actually!
You host a daily show where there are often big panel discussions — how do you know when to let an interesting conversation roll, or when to cut off someone who’s hogging the mic?
We do handle that situation pretty much every day! [laughs] We have very enthusiastic panel discussions on the show all the time, and that’s one of the main jobs of the anchor — knowing when to step back and let a person jump in, if it’s going to be edifying for the audience — and knowing when to step in and say, “That’s enough of that.”
What are the big issues this cycle?
If you look at polls we’ve seen over the past year, people are concerned about the economy. In all the elections I’ve covered, the economy tends to be the number-one subject. I also hear people across a very broad spectrum talking about what’s happening overseas and their security at home.
Will the debates have an official winner?
No. The next day, everyone in the news world will be evaluating who did well and who didn’t do well — so there will be tons of analysis but not a winner.
From your perspective, what will make a winner?
There are those moments when someone seems very much in command of their thought process and of where they want to take the country. I think they know when they’ve nailed an answer, and the people in the audience know it. That’s what makes it fascinating to watch — you’ll see four, five, or six people on that stage, and afterwards some will feel like they’ve “won” and made their mark, and others will walk away a little forlorn, like they missed an opportunity.
It’s a balance, right? The strength of your ideas but also your ability to express them clearly and quickly.
Yes, since the dawn of television, anyone who wants to run for office needs to be someone who needs to nail it on both accounts. Audiences seize on visual cues, how confidently [the candidates] are jumping from one topic to another, how smart they seem, and their depth of knowledge. That’s what people will be watching for, and it’s clear in the end who has those things and who doesn’t. And I have no idea who’s going to have it when we sit down in Cleveland, but it’s going to be significant.
Fox has decided that only the top 10 candidates, per the polls, will be allowed at the main 9 p.m. debate, with everyone else on at 5 p.m. If someone misses the main debate, is his or her campaign effectively over?
I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question. Anyone who stands on that stage — at 9 p.m. or 5 p.m., can win that election. With a field this large, anything can happen. And who knows if the people currently at the top will hold those positions? Last presidential election, we saw several candidates who got up to that top position, and then were knocked down. The reason everyone’s going to be at the debate is because they clearly have a shot.
Right: Last time around, Michele Bachmann led the polls for a while, and so did Herman Cain. And we saw how that turned out.
That’s what makes it so interesting — you know, truth is always more interesting than fiction, and that’s what’s playing out here. There are plenty of pundits and analysts out there, but ultimately, this is the choice of the American people. The pundits and analysts may be surprised.
Any advice for first-time debate watchers!
Get together with your friends and a big bowl of popcorn. Take notes or follow along on social media. You know it’s serious, but it’s an awful lot of fun, too — it’s a real horse race.
And get engaged now! The more you watch and keep on top of it, the more the story will pull you in and you’ll realize that politics is not only a fascinating thing to follow but it’s the history of our country unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s a great responsibility and privilege to get to be a part of and to vote on.
There’s been criticism that Fox is usurping the role of early-voting states Iowa and New Hampshire by having the debate when it’s having it. Is there any validity to that?
I don’t think so. Someone’s going to go first. We’re giving everyone who is legitimately out there the opportunity to be on that stage. I don’t know how much people are paying attention to the process yet. To be honest with you, I think a lot won’t be engaged in a full way until farther down the line. And you know this whole process is just beginning.
When you look at those early primary states, things are so intense on the ground right now. People in Iowa and New Hampshire are getting a close look at candidates pretty much every day. We’re giving everyone else the opportunity to get to know the candidate. I think that’s a good service to provide, and I think we’re going to do it in a really good way.