The Republican National Committee (RNC) finally released its guidelines for its first primary debate, which will be hosted by Fox News and held in Milwaukee on August 23. Hoping to stave off embarrassment for the party, GOP participants, expected to be in the double-digits, must pledge their support for the eventual nominee—which Trump infamously refused to do during the 2016 primary—and agree to forgo any unsanctioned debates.
In order to qualify for the debate stage, candidates must poll over one percent in either three national polls or two national polls and one state poll, and also boast at least 40,000 unique campaign donors spread across 20 states and territories.
The RNC said that a second debate could be held the following day if a high number of candidates qualify, but so far has not explained how they would divide up the field. In 2016, the party gave the ten top polling candidates spots on the main debate stage and relegated the stragglers to an undercard debate.
“Debates are not a vanity project but a critical opportunity to find the next President of the United States,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told The Washington Post. “If you can’t find 40,000 unique donors to give you a dollar and at least 1 percent of the primary electorate to support you, how can you expect to defeat Joe Biden?”
The debate rules are a long time coming. “By this time in 2015,” Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein wrote Friday, “the date and venue for the first debate had already been reported, and the GOP, after streamlining the debate schedule, was wrestling with how to fit the robust 2016 field onstage.”
Still, there’s much we don’t know about how the debate will unfold, and the main question mark is whether the stage will even include the former president and current Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. Early last month, The New York Times reported that Trump was likely to bail on at least one of the first two debates, and The Washington Post revealed that Trump had spoken privately with Tucker Carlson about the prospect of having the former Fox News host moderate a separate, non-RNC sanctioned debate, which would disqualify Trump under the current RNC rules.
Trump could play a will-he-won’t-he game for months, as he doesn’t need to make a decision until August 21st, which is the deadline for candidates to submit their qualifications and pledge to support the nominee.
The qualification requirements may prove prohibitive for a number of current and likely candidates. In a collection of recent national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, only Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott averaged over one percent. One likely candidate who could struggle to qualify is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is expected to enter the race next week and has pledged to directly attack Trump for his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Christie struggled to attract small donors when he ran for president in 2016, and is hovering just around one percent in Real Clear Politics’ polling compilation.
There is at least one candidate, however, who wishes the standards were even stricter. The New York Times reported that two Republicans familiar with the DeSantis campaign said the candidate’s team was hoping for a higher qualification threshold, “which would have been likely to thin out the stage,” giving the Florida Governor more opportunities to directly challenge his main rival, who is currently clobbering him in the polls.
Trump addressed the prospect of a DeSantis debate showdown last week. “They say he’s not a very good debater, but maybe he is,” he said. “We’ll find out. Maybe we’ll find out. Because unless he gets close, why would anybody debate?”