The clock is ticking for Republican presidential hopefuls to lock in a spot on the debate stage. Candidates have until Monday evening — 48 hours before the first GOP primary debate on Aug. 23 — to meet the Republican National Committee’s polling and donor requirements.
As things currently stand, eight candidates have met the RNC’s minimum standards for polling and donor support, though only five have completed the final step by signing the RNC’s loyalty pledge. Now the question is, will anyone else become eligible to make the stage, and will all eligible participants sign the pledge?
The remaining three major candidates (by FiveThirtyEight’s definition) who are short of polls or donors need some major last-minute help. Perhaps the only one with a shot is Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who said last week that his campaign had met the RNC’s requirement of 40,000 donors. But he is missing at least two polls, as he has reached 1 percent support in only one national and one Iowa poll. (He needs to hit that figure in two additional qualifying national polls, or in one additional national poll and one poll of an early state that’s not Iowa.)1 But Suarez did reach the 1 percent mark in the most recent Morning Consult national survey, so that might signal a slight upswing that could result in more qualifying polls, assuming pollsters release a final flurry of pre-debate surveys.
The other two candidates are probably not going to make it to Milwaukee next week. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has attracted enough polling support, but earlier this month he said his campaign was only nearing 20,000 contributors, just half of what he needs. Although former Texas Rep. Will Hurd announced on Thursday that he’d met the donor requirement, he too needs another national survey and early state poll. But Hurd has repeatedly said he won’t sign the RNC’s pledge, so unless that requirement unexpectedly changes, he still wouldn’t be on stage even if he gets the polls he needs.2
Remarkably, the pledge mandate — which requires candidates to promise to support the eventual GOP presidential nominee and to not run as an independent or third-party candidate in the general election — may keep the party’s biggest name off the stage. Former President Donald Trump has so far refused to sign it, raising the possibility that the first Republican debate won’t feature the party’s clear front-runner. Two others who have met the RNC’s polling and contributor prerequisites — former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — have signaled they will sign the pledge once it’s presented to them, but as of Thursday afternoon, there was no indication they’d yet signed.
When we took stock of debate qualification on July 24, Trump, Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott had met both polling and donor criteria. The following day, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced that he had enough polling support to make the stage, accompanying the 40,000 donors he’d attracted in part by using a scheme in which donors only had to give his campaign as little as $1 to receive a $20 gift card.
Pence, the eighth candidate to be eligible for the debate, easily met the polling requirement once enough eligible surveys had been released. However, it wasn’t until Aug. 7 that his campaign announced he had attracted 40,000 donors, a lag due in part to his overall fundraising struggles. Still, Pence’s donation count quickened earlier this month thanks to Trump: On Aug. 3, Pence’s campaign said it had received more than 7,400 donations since the Justice Department indicted Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. That development, along with Pence’s more critical comments about Trump’s behavior around Jan. 6, 2021, may have proved pivotal in helping the former vice president reach the contributor threshold.
This brings us back to Trump’s pledge situation, which is now coming to a head. Trump has said he will shortly decide whether to participate, but RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has stated there will be no exceptions on the pledge. Yet the RNC is surely vexed by the idea of holding its first primary debate without the party’s front-runner, who may opt to hold counterprogramming and steal Republican eyes away from the RNC-sanctioned main event. Not to mention, Fox News, the host of the first debate, clearly wants Trump to be on stage because of his ability to pull in an audience. In the RNC-Trump staredown, it’s possible Trump could blink and sign the pledge, unable to stay away from the spotlight. Still, Trump did skip the GOP debate just before the 2016 Iowa caucuses due to his frustration with Fox News’s hosts and questioning. And he’s openly questioned the utility of giving his opponents a chance to attack him on a debate stage when he has such a sizable polling edge.
With at least seven Republicans likely headed for the debate stage, we now have to wait to see what Trump decides to do. But whether or not the former president participates, he will almost certainly be a focal point of the Fox News hosts’ questions and the candidates’ responses Wednesday night.