Why Some Republican Candidates Might Not Make The Debate Stage

Whether they’re generating news coverage or raising money (or, in recent years, eyebrows), debates are a critical part of the presidential primary calendar. A great performance can help a lesser-known candidate gain ground in the polls and expand their fundraising reach, while a poor showing can mark the beginning of the end — or the end, period — for someone’s presidential aspirations. 

But before candidates can make or break their campaigns, they need to get on the debate stage. On Friday, the Republican National Committee released its debate qualification criteria for the party’s first debate on Aug. 23, 2023. The RNC’s guidelines, which establish candidate polling and fundraising thresholds, are pretty similar to Democratic National Committee’s at the start of the 2020 cycle. However, there are a few additional twists and specifications — most notably, the requirement that candidates pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee and the criteria for determining which polls count toward qualification — that could limit the field.

To make the debate, the RNC will require candidates to meet four separate requirements. First, a contender must be a declared candidate who has filed with the Federal Election Commission. Second, a candidate must have earned 1 percent support in three national polls, or in two national polls and at least one poll of the GOP’s first four states, recognized by the RNC and conducted in July and August. Third, a candidate must have at least 40,000 unique contributors to their presidential campaign committee, with at least 200 from 20 states and/or territories. And lastly, a candidate must sign three documents: a pledge to support the GOP’s eventual nominee, a data-sharing agreement with the RNC and a pledge to not participate in any debates not sanctioned by the RNC.

So given these requirements, who would make the stage if the debate were held today? Currently, six candidates are at 1 percent or higher in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average: former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence (expected to announce his candidacy on June 7), former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Though the polls taken up until this point won’t count toward debate qualification, these candidates seemingly have good shots at being at 1 percent in July and August surveys. And they can probably attract or already have sufficient donors, as even the lesser-known Ramaswamy recently announced he had met the donor threshold.

It’s unclear, however, exactly how many polls the RNC will recognize — though it could be a smaller number than those used by the DNC to determine debate qualification in 2019. In its release, the RNC said it would only consider polls conducted by organizations unaffiliated with a candidate or a candidate committee that sampled at least “800 registered likely Republican voters.” This significantly limits the number of polls under consideration, as many primary polls around this time in an election cycle sample registered voters or adults without a likely voter screen, and relatively few have an 800-plus voter sample size. In fact, since Jan. 1, a period of just over 150 days, only seven Republican primary polls in FiveThirtyEight’s database appear to meet those criteria. And because the RNC will only recognize polls conducted from July 1 to just before the debate, pollsters will only have about 50 days to conduct and release qualifying polls. 

By comparison, the DNC in 2019 provided a list of pollsters whose data would count toward qualification and counted any poll publicly released between Jan. 1, 2019, and two weeks before the first debate in June — a period of just over five months. In the end, the DNC had 23 qualifying polls.

Now, pollsters could respond by working to expand their sample size and use a likely voter screen to meet the RNC’s requirement. For instance, an April poll by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/Impact Research for The Wall Street Journal had a sample of 600 likely Republican primary voters. However, even if that well-known pollster pairing expanded its sample size in future surveys, would they count? Tony Fabrizio currently works with a Trump-aligned super PAC, which may run afoul of the pollster affiliation rule. Republican polling firms that often release national or state-level surveys of likely voters could run into a similar issue, because some of them may be aligned with a candidate’s committee or supportive outside group. Some media-sponsored polls do start polling likely voters in the early summer, but even then they rarely have sample sizes as large as 800.

We reached out to the RNC for comment and clarification about its polling qualification criteria, but as of press time had not heard back.

The stricter guidelines for the polls are not the only place where Republicans have made it harder to qualify for presidential debates, compared to the Democrats’ 2020 requirements. By mandating that candidates reach minimum thresholds for both polling and donors, the RNC has skipped ahead of the DNC’s initial rules in the 2020 cycle. For its first two debates, Democrats allowed candidates to qualify via either the polling or donor route, and it wasn’t until the third debate that candidates had to meet both a polling and donor threshold to qualify. By necessitating both from the start, Republicans may reduce the number of qualifiers. But if there are too many qualified candidates for one stage, the RNC said it could host a second debate night on Aug. 24, similar to what the Democrats did four years ago. 

However, the RNC is starting out with a lower threshold for unique donors than the DNC did in 2019 — 40,000 versus 65,000 — which may reflect the GOP’s comparatively lower amount of small-donor fundraising. Nonetheless, some lesser-known Republican contenders, such as former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and radio personality Larry Elder, expressed frustration with even that comparatively lower figure, viewing it as a serious barrier to their qualification chances.

The final potentially major limitation on the number of candidates are the pledges — particularly the pledge to support the eventual nominee. Trump — who will surely meet the polling and donor requirements — has not committed to signing it, which much of the coverage of the RNC’s debate qualification announcement immediately homed in on. Now, Trump did sign a similar pledge in September 2015 after much back-and-forth with the RNC. But while he was ostensibly the GOP’s front-runner back then, Trump is in a much stronger position this time around, polling north of 50 percent and having reshaped the party in his image during his presidency. As such, he may not see much reason to give into the RNC on this debate requirement.

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