The second Republican presidential primary debate is less than two weeks away, so time is running out for GOP contenders to meet the Republican National Committee’s qualification criteria. To make the Sept. 27 debate, each candidate must have at least 3 percent support in two qualifying national polls, or at least 3 percent in one national survey and that same figure in polls from two different early voting states,1 conducted since Aug. 1. Each candidate must also provide evidence of having attained at least 50,000 unique donors to their campaign.2 And if they have the polls and donors, candidates will once again have to sign a pledge to support the party’s eventual 2024 nominee if they want to participate.
As things stand, there’s a decent chance that fewer candidates will qualify than the eight who attended the party’s first gathering in August. Six of that octet appear to have the donors and polls to make the second debate, and each signed the RNC’s pledge for the first debate, so there’s no reason to think they won’t sign again. However, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson may have trouble qualifying again under the higher September thresholds for polls and donors. And having skipped the first debate despite easily qualifying for it — save signing the RNC’s pledge — former President Donald Trump looks set to eschew the second debate, too.
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FiveThirtyEight’s analysis found that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had at least 3 percent support in every qualifying survey (Trump did as well). Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie met that mark in nearly every survey, while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott got there in about three-fourths of them. And none of these six candidates showed any sign of difficulty when it came to reaching the 50,000 donor mark. Even Pence’s campaign, which had a harder time attracting donors than most, announced in mid-August that it had enough unique contributors to qualify for the second debate.
With 11 days to go until the Sept. 25 qualification deadline, the polling threshold rising to 3 percent from 1 percent appears to be the main obstacle for the candidates who haven’t qualified. Burgum announced in late July that he had 50,000 donors, but FiveThirtyEight’s analysis found that he’s reached 3 percent in just one statewide survey, a mid-August poll of Iowa from Trafalgar Group. Now, Burgum’s campaign may argue that he’s hit 3 percent in New Hampshire, based on either the 2.5 percent he garnered in another mid-August Trafalgar poll or the 4 percent he attained in an early-August poll from co/efficient on behalf of the New Hampshire Journal. We can’t rule out that the RNC might count the second Trafalgar poll, although the RNC showed no indication that it was willing to round poll results reported with decimal places during qualification for the first debate. However, because co/efficient has polled for Trump this cycle, its New Hampshire survey won’t count under the RNC polling rule that excludes polls conducted by organizations affiliated with a candidate or candidate committee.
Yet regardless of whether he has polls from one or two early states, Burgum has struggled to hit the 3 percent mark in national surveys. It’s no wonder that Best of America PAC, a super PAC supporting Burgum, reserved $4 million in ads between Aug. 30 and Sept. 24. However, there’s not much evidence this has boosted Burgum: The most prolific national pollster, Morning Consult, has released data for seven nationwide surveys since Aug. 1, but Burgum garnered more than 0 percent just once, hitting 1 percent in a mid-August poll that predated the super PAC’s ad buy. In fact, Burgum has reached 2 percent in just one national poll that sampled at least 800 likely Republican voters since Aug. 1, a Kaplan Strategies survey conducted right after the first debate.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson needs both more polls and donors to make the stage, although he seems likely to reach the 50,000 contributor mark. Last week, a campaign spokesperson told ABC News that Hutchinson is “very close” to the donor requirement, and he did get a last-minute surge in contributors to qualify for the first debate. On the polling front, Hutchinson has something Burgum doesn’t: one national poll of 3 percent or better, thanks to a Kaplan Strategies survey taken before the first debate. But Hutchinson hasn’t exceeded 1 percent in any potentially eligible nationwide poll conducted since the first debate. And he’s done no better in early state surveys, making it unlikely that he’ll get qualifying polls from two different states to combine with his one national survey to meet the RNC’s other polling qualification route.
It’s difficult to imagine any other Republican will have a shot at qualifying for the September debate. Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd appears to have one qualifying poll from New Hampshire — a mid-August Echelon Insights/Republican Main Street Partnership survey — but like Burgum and Hutchinson, he has struggled to clear 1 percent in most surveys. And while Hurd could get to the 50,000 donor mark, his public refusal to consider signing the RNC’s pledge nearly guarantees that he won’t make the stage. Additionally, businessman Perry Johnson and radio host Larry Elder came close to qualifying for the first debate, and both have threatened legal action against the RNC alleging that it unfairly kept them off the stage. But even if Johnson and/or Elder can get to 50,000 donors — Johnson claimed to have that many in mid-August — neither candidate has a qualifying poll to his name.
Lastly, Trump’s presence — or lack thereof — looms over the debate process. The former president is polling above 50 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s national average, making him a clear favorite to win the GOP nomination. Yet while Trump’s average fell slightly after the first debate, it has essentially recovered to its pre-debate position, suggesting voters didn’t really penalize him for skipping the event. It’s no wonder, then, that he seems intent on skipping the second debate and holding counterprogramming that evening, just as he did for the first debate when a pre-taped interview between Trump and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired at the same time.
With Trump’s likely absence, the second debate is once again setting up to be a clash among the party’s leading alternatives, none of whom seem positioned to mount a significant challenge to Trump. Still, it’s critical for these candidates to make the debate stage, as failing to qualify could signal to donors that their campaigns truly have no chance of success. Moreover, without Trump holding the spotlight, the debate will provide the other Republican contenders with an opportunity to be seen and heard by a large audience. That is a chance the candidates don’t want to squander, as a sterling debate performance could — could — shift the course of their campaign.