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CNN just changed its GOP debate qualifying rules — and now Carly Fiorina might get in

Carly Fiorina
Carly Fiorina
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

CNN, the host of this primary season's second Republican debate, announced Tuesday afternoon that it would modify its rules to potentially let an extra candidate — likely Carly Fiorina — on stage for the main event on September 16.

The rules were changed after increasing criticism that the network's methodology wouldn't sufficiently account for a more recent surge in a candidate's support — like the one Fiorina has benefited from in the few national polls conducted after her widely praised performance in the first debate.

So the network executives said, "We now believe we should adjust the criteria to ensure the next debate best reflects the most current state of the national race." Translation: They'll change the rules so Fiorina has a better shot at getting in.

Why CNN's original rules hurt Fiorina

The network's original rules proposed to average national polls from a list of major organizations conducted between July 16 and September 10, to winnow the field to 10 candidates. At the time, that seemed to make sense, and the network was praised for its transparency in making its criteria clear well in advance (in contrast to Fox News, which was vague about which polls it would use to determine who qualified for its debate).

The problem, though, is that many more polls from CNN's approved list of organizations were conducted before that first debate than after it. Between July 16 and the first debate, there were nine such national polls. Afterward, there have been only three — and CNN only expects two more to come out in the time remaining.

All three of those new polls showed Fiorina in the top 10, getting support from about 5 percent of GOP voters, and coming in around seventh place. Yet all nine of the pre-debate polls showed Fiorina at 2 percent support or below, among the worst in the large field. Since there were far more of these polls in the average, they weighted down her overall chances of qualifying.

Fiorina's campaign made the case that this was unfair, and many Republicans and conservatives found her persuasive. For instance, National Review wrote an editorial Thursday morning headlined "Let Her In."

The new rules

CNN said that because they didn't expect there to be so few new polls after the debate, they'll modify the rules to better account for a more recent surge in support for a candidate. RNC Chair Reince Priebus also endorsed the rules change.

So now, any candidate who places in the top ten in an average of the post-debate polls — as Fiorina currently does — will also get to qualify, thus potentially expanding the number of candidates onstage to 11 (or even more, though that looks very unlikely given the numbers released so far).

There are still at least two more polls expected to be added to these averages released before September 10. But, so far, it looks like the same ten candidates who qualified for the first debate (Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich) will all make it onstage again — and, now, Fiorina will join them.

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