At Least 8 Republicans Have Made The First Debate. Could 3 More Join Them?

UPDATE (Aug. 22, 2023, 12:10 a.m.): On Monday night, the Republican National Committee confirmed that eight candidates would appear in Wednesday’s debate: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

It’s deadline day for Republican presidential candidates seeking to make the stage for the GOP’s first primary debate on Aug. 23. The Republican National Committee set a cutoff time of 48 hours before the debate, so to qualify, every contender must hit at least 1 percent in enough qualifying polls, provide evidence that they have enough donors and sign a pledge promising to back the eventual 2024 Republican nominee by 9 p.m. Eastern tonight.

At this point, eight candidates have met every requirement to make the stage. But depending on what polls the RNC is willing to count, as many as 11 candidates could qualify. After a flurry of last-minute polls and donations, the latest candidates claiming they’ve met the requirements are Michigan businessman Perry Johnson and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. But they, along with former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, appear to be in a gray zone.

At least eight candidates have made the GOP’s debate stage

Republican presidential candidates by whether and how they have qualified for the first primary debate, as of 9:45 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 21, 2023

Candidate Polls Donors Pledge
Ron DeSantis
Vivek Ramaswamy
Mike Pence
Nikki Haley
Chris Christie
Tim Scott
Doug Burgum
Asa Hutchinson
Donald Trump
Perry Johnson
Francis Suarez
Will Hurd

Although included here, Perry Johnson has not met FiveThirtyEight’s criteria for “major” candidate status, while the other 11 contenders have. Polls qualification is based on surveys that appear to meet the Republican National Committee’s requirements for inclusion.

To qualify for the debate, candidates must meet both the polling and donor thresholds established by the Republican National Committee. To meet the polling requirement, a candidate must reach 1 percent in at least three national polls, or 1 percent in two national polls and two polls from the first four states voting in the GOP primary, each coming from separate states, based on surveys that meet the RNC’s criteria for inclusion. To meet the donor requirement, a candidate must have at least 40,000 unique donors with at least 200 donors in at least 20 states and/or territories. Information released by campaigns is used to determine whether a candidate has hit the donor threshold. If a campaign reached 40,000 donors but did not say whether it had at least 200 donors in 20 states, we assumed that it had met the latter requirement as well. The pledge refers to an RNC requirement that candidates who meet the polling and donor standards sign a pledge promising to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee to participate in the debate. Candidates marked as pledged have signed, but some who haven’t signed may intend to.

Sources: Polls, News Reports

(One candidate who we don’t think is in a gray zone: former President Donald Trump, who has said he is not planning to be on stage. Although he has the polls and donors to qualify, the Republican front-runner looks set to skip the debate as he has refused to sign the pledge. Instead, Trump took part in a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that is expected to run at the same time as the debate.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is the latest to qualify. He reached 1 percent in enough polls to qualify in late July, but he’d struggled to attract enough donors to qualify for the stage. But as any journalist knows, nothing gets a job done better than a deadline: On Sunday, Hutchinson announced he had reached the 40,000-contributor mark, and he has signed the pledge as well, per a source familiar with the RNC’s debate qualification who shared this information with ABC News. Hutchinson signed despite having been openly critical of the pledge because of his opposition to Trump.

Meanwhile, Johnson — who hasn’t yet reached “major” candidate status according to FiveThirtyEight’s criteria —  might have reason to complain if he doesn’t qualify. As of last Thursday, Johnson was short of the RNC’s polling requirement, as he had reached 1 percent or better in only one national poll from a Trafalgar Group survey released that very day. This meant he needed either two more national polls of at least 1 percent, or that level of support in one more national survey and two polls from the first four states voting in the GOP primary (with each coming from separate states), based on surveys that meet the RNC’s standards. On Friday, Trafalgar also released two surveys that gave Johnson qualifying polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, putting him one national poll shy of qualification (his campaign said last week that it had attracted 50,000 donors). However, another poll released on Friday, a national survey from Victory Insights, seemingly gave Johnson what he needed. 

Yet the RNC has not confirmed Johnson’s qualification, so it is possible that he’s fallen short because of an issue with his donors or surveys. Johnson claimed earlier today that the RNC had confirmed his donors; if that’s true, then perhaps the organization has determined at least one of these polls does not meet its standards. Trafalgar has faced questions in the past about its methodology, while Victory Insights’s survey stated it had respondents from only 38 states — in an email to FiveThirtyEight, the pollster said it used a national sample but did not get responses in some states — so perhaps that caused a problem. To be clear, pollsters sometimes struggle to get respondents from states with small populations, and fewer people vote in presidential primaries and, especially, caucuses. (For instance, finding a likely Republican voter in dark-blue Hawaii, where the state GOP uses caucuses, would be challenging.) Although we don’t have clarity on his situation, Johnson posted a picture to his account on X (formerly Twitter) this afternoon showing him signing a copy of the RNC’s pledge — but there’s been no confirmation that he’s actually qualified.

Suarez claimed on Friday that he had qualified for the debate — an assertion the RNC would not confirm. Suarez announced he had 40,000 donors in early August, but he’s struggled to hit the 1 percent mark in surveys. In fact, coming into today, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis concluded Suarez needed either one more national poll or one more early state poll from New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina. Yet Suarez may have enough surveys thanks to a new national survey released Monday afternoon by McShane LLC/American Wire News — a lesser-known pollster — that found the Floridian at 1.5 percent. That poll would seemingly give Suarez a third qualifying national survey to make the stage, but we also haven’t heard any word on Suarez’s status.

Prior to that last-minute poll, the pro-Suarez SOS America PAC argued that Suarez had qualified via two other nationwide surveys — an early July tracking poll from Morning Consult and an early August poll from Cygnal. Suarez did hit 1 percent in Morning Consult’s tracker for the period of July 1-3, but it’s unclear if that polling is under consideration along with the firm’s weekly release of full data, which Politico confirmed would count toward qualification. This is a much bigger can of worms, because if the RNC were to accept all of Morning Consult’s tracking data, the pollster’s surveys would constitute a massive share of the polls — about 70 percent — used for debate qualification versus 25 percent of polls if only the once-per-week releases count. Meanwhile, the Cygnal poll has two issues. First, it found Suarez at 0.6 percent, which would only count if the RNC permits candidates to use rounded results. Second, one of Cygnal’s pollsters, Brock McCleary, is entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s pollster, which looks to run afoul of the RNC’s rule that candidates can’t count surveys from firms “affiliated with a candidate or candidate committee.”

Last but not least, Hurd announced on Aug. 17 he reached 42,500 donors, and his team told ABC News that same day it is “confident” he has the polls. However, he has publicly rejected the idea of signing the loyalty pledge, which would seem to seal his fate even if he did have the polls. Still, if all of Morning Consult’s national tracking data counts toward qualification, Hurd too would have enough national polling to make the stage. And if borderline candidates are arguing for polls in which their support rounds up to 1 percent, Hurd could also make the case that a late July survey from Siena College/The New York Times should give him the last national poll he needs. In that survey, he is listed as having less than 1 percent but more than 0.5 percent, a result that some pollsters would report as 1 percent.

Whether future debates will have this sort of uncertainty regarding qualification remains to be seen. But just like the Democrats found out in the 2020 cycle, the GOP has discovered that no matter how clear debate qualifying rules seem on paper, there are always complications in how those rules are applied and challenges for the national party to sort out. Once the RNC confirms its list of qualifying candidates for the debate, we’ll post an update to the top of this article confirming the final debate stage.

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