January debates offer last shot for Trump's opponents to make their case

DeSantis and Haley will face off in Iowa; Christie set to join them in N.H.

January 9, 2024, 11:55 AM

Could the fifth time be the charm? The sixth? Or perhaps the seventh? After four primary debates did nothing to diminish former President Donald Trump's advantage in the Republican nomination race, his GOP opponents hope something will give after one or more of the three primary debates happening in January.

Over the next two weeks, Republican presidential candidates will participate in one debate in Iowa and two in New Hampshire. Each gathering looks likely to have at most three contenders on stage, meaning these events will be more intimate than any so far this cycle. That could present candidates with clearer opportunities to sway viewers, and to make headlines as attention peaks just ahead of the two leadoff contests in the GOP primary calendar.

Based on qualification requirements, we already have a very clear idea about the lineups for all three debates, barring a surprise dropout announcement by one of the contenders. Wednesday evening, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will meet in the first head-to-head debate this cycle in Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the state's caucuses on Jan. 15. Then on Jan. 18 and Jan. 21, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will likely join DeSantis and Haley in a pair of New Hampshire debates before the state's Jan. 23 primary. Trump is once again planning to skip the debates, content in the knowledge that his refusal to debate even once this cycle has not dinged his polling numbers. And at this juncture, no other candidates look likely to qualify.

For these debates, qualification principally rested on attracting at least 10 percent support in the polls. For the Iowa debate on Jan. 10, host CNN announced that contenders had to hit that mark in three separate national and/or Iowa surveys to qualify, based on polls conducted since Oct. 15 and released by Jan. 2. CNN announced last week that only Trump, DeSantis and Haley had qualified, and that only the latter two had agreed to participate. For the New Hampshire debate on Jan. 18, ABC News mandated candidates reach 10 percent in two national surveys, or in two New Hampshire polls, based on polls conducted since Nov. 27 and released by Jan. 16. A candidate can also qualify by finishing in the top three in the Iowa caucuses. As for CNN's New Hampshire debate on Jan. 21, contenders must garner 10 percent in three national and/or New Hampshire polls conducted since Nov. 1 and released by Jan. 16, or finish in the top three in Iowa. When it came to determining which polls count toward qualification, ABC News and CNN each released a list of polling and sponsor organizations whose surveys would be acceptable.

The rules — and Trump's refusal to participate — will give us the election's first head-to-head debate in Iowa, but they also helped Christie qualify for the New Hampshire debates. Throughout this cycle, Christie hasn't cleared 5 percent in either 538's national polling average or our Iowa average. But Christie's outsized strength in New Hampshire qualified him for the ABC News and CNN debates there because a candidate could make it based solely on New Hampshire surveys. Overall, he has garnered at least 10 percent in six New Hampshire polls conducted that count under either ABC News's or CNN's criteria: November surveys from Monmouth University/Washington Post and University of New Hampshire/CNN, December polls from YouGov/CBS News and Saint Anselm College, and early January surveys from Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today and University of New Hampshire/CNN (again).

But the 10 percent requirement has made it unlikely that tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — or anyone else — will also qualify for the January debates. Unlike Christie, Ramaswamy doesn't have disproportionate strength in Iowa or New Hampshire to help garner qualifying state-level polls: He's polling at about 5 to 7 percent in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally. Anticipating that he wouldn't qualify for the Iowa event, Ramaswamy attacked CNN and claimed the debate would be "the most boring in modern history." And considering Ramaswamy trails Haley by about 10 points for third place in Iowa, it also appears he's a long shot to make the New Hampshire debate based on a top-three finish in the leadoff caucuses. (Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is also still technically in the race, but he hasn't qualified for a debate since August.)

Under the hood of debate organization

One wrinkle in all this is the absence of the Republican National Committee from the debate process. For the first four debates, which took place from August to December, the RNC laid out the qualification rules and partnered with media organizations to run them. But after the Dec. 6 debate, the RNC announced that it was stepping back from organizing debates and would permit candidates to participate in debates not sanctioned by the RNC. As a result, media outlets like ABC News and CNN had free rein to organize these debates as they saw fit. That's not to say that the GOP has been absent entirely — for instance, ABC News is coordinating its debate with the New Hampshire Republican State Committee — but the national party has, for now, exited the debate scene.

An immediate impact of this switch has been a shift in which polls are used in the qualification process. Unlike ABC News and CNN, the RNC did not delineate a list of pollsters it would count, but instead laid out criteria for what surveys could be used toward qualification. That included any poll with 800 registered likely Republican voters, as long as the pollster or sponsor wasn't affiliated in some way with a campaign or group allied to a candidate. While there remains some pollster overlap, the likely voter and large sample size requirements led to fewer traditional media or academic polls counting toward qualification under earlier RNC requirements.

For instance, not a single survey from well-known polling organizations and sponsors like SSRS/CNN, Monmouth University, NBC News, Quinnipiac University or Selzer & Co. counted toward qualification for the first four debates. Conversely, Morning Consult polls no longer count, even though the pollster's weekly national surveys served as the most frequent poll affecting qualification to the first four debates. Some outfits that use lower-cost, sometimes-less transparent approaches to produce surveys with larger sample sizes are also gone from the picture. Because of the winnowed candidate field and the 10 percent threshold, this shift in which polls count won't dramatically affect who makes the stage, but it still represents an abrupt change in the debate qualification process.

The RNC's choice to step back also runs against a recent trend in presidential nomination contests: parties asserting greater control over primary debates. Until the 2010s, national parties had often not played much of a role in the organization of these events. But following the 2012 election, Republicans came away with the belief that the party had too many primary debates — 20 — and that this had damaged the party's brand and eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, ahead of the general election. In 2016, media outlets still played a big role in determining qualification, but the RNC asserted itself in the choice of the venues, partners and moderators while forbidding candidates from participating in unsanctioned debates, which helped reduce their number to 12. Then in 2020, the Democratic National Committee upped national party involvement by laying out the qualification criteria for each primary debate. The 2024 cycle started off similarly, with the RNC determining the qualification rules for the first four debates. Then the RNC backed off, potentially because of Trump's desire for the RNC to stop hosting debates and look ahead to the general election, or pressure from other candidates to make it possible to participate in more debates and forums.

But regardless of all this, the next three debates could be the last chance DeSantis and Haley — Trump's main two rivals at this point — have to make their case to a large national audience. With Iowa caucusing on Jan. 15, it's now put up or shut up time in the presidential nomination contest, and given Trump's sizable edge, his opponents are going to need something special, and probably some luck, to have a chance of overcoming his advantage in the race.