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RNC Issues Criteria for Making the Debate Stage

The first Republican presidential debate will take place in Milwaukee on Aug. 23. It will be sponsored by Fox News, Rumble, and Young America's Foundation. All of that has been known for a while. What wasn't known until Friday are the exact criteria for qualifying to get on stage. On Friday, the RNC announced the ground rules. Here are the four main ones:

  1. Poll at least 1% in three national polls or 1% in two national polls plus 1% in two early states.
  2. Have at least 40,000 unique donors and at least 200 donors in each of 20 states.
  3. Sign an agreement not to participate in any debate not approved by the RNC.
  4. Sign a pledge to support the Republican nominee during the general election campaign.

Hitting 1% nationally seems like a very low bar to us, so the stage might be quite full. This could help Donald Trump if all the not-Trump candidates aim their fire at other not-Trump candidates, as happened in 2016. In that year, the strategy all the candidates except Trump used was to try to demolish everyone except Trump so they could end up going man-to-man (or, in the case of Carly Fiorina, woman-to-man) in the end. It didn't work then and almost certainly won't work now. To the extent that many candidates make the stage and they fight with each other, it just helps Trump.

The one possible exception here is Chris Christie, who is expected to enter the race this week or next. He can take it as well as dish it out and might actually be willing to take on Trump on the stage. Of course, trying to take down Trump to his face only works if Trump is there, which is not certain yet. Trump has not said whether he will agree with point four on the list above and might just decide not to show up. If he were to sign the agreement and then run as an independent anyway if he loses the primary, that would clearly demonstrate to independents that his promises mean nothing. That could be fatal if he ran as an independent or third-party candidate because he would need many votes from independents in order to win.

Point four could also be an issue for Christie because he has said he could never vote for Trump in the general election. It could also be a problem for Asa Hutchinson, who lobbied the RNC to reword #4 to "I agree not to run as a third-party candidate in the general election" but failed to convinced RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel.

There are also criteria about which polls count. Suffice it to say that the poll must have 800 likely Republican primary voters. This means some polls by legitimate pollsters may not qualify. This could be an issue for candidates just on the edge.

Candidates have until 48 hours before the debate to find enough polls where they get 1%, so it is very early now to predict who will make the cut. Still, there are five candidates who are at 1% now and probably will make the cut:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Ron DeSantis
  3. Nikki Haley
  4. Tim Scott
  5. Vivek Ramaswamy

They will probably all pass the funding tests as well. Except possibly for Trump, they will also agree to support the Republican nominee.

Now we come to candidates (and pre-candidates) who are right on the edge:

  1. Mike Pence
  2. Chris Christie
  3. Chris Sununu
  4. Asa Hutchinson
  5. Larry Elder

Some of these might make it and some might not. For them, the polling could be a problem, the donors could be a problem, or both could be problems.

Finally there are five potential candidates who are surely sweating big time now. If they don't make the stage, they're toast, so it only makes sense to jump in if they think they have a decent chance of making the debate. Here they are:

  1. Doug Burgum
  2. Perry Johnson
  3. Ryan Binkley
  4. Mike Rogers
  5. Will Hurd

The one who has the best chance here is Gov. Doug Burgum (R-SD), a self-made software billionaire. He might be able to get 40,000 donors from North Dakota alone and with enough advertising in enough states, could possible meet the other tests. Perry Johnson ran for governor of Michigan in 2022 but was disqualified because he failed to meet the signature requirement, an ominous sign. But he is wealthy and advertising heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire already. We doubt that more than 10 candidates will meet the requirements. There will not be a kddie table this time, so it is the main stage or bust. (V)

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