The third Republican debate stage will be less crowded

Four candidates appear to have qualified, while Tim Scott’s status is uncertain.

November 3, 2023, 1:46 PM

It takes a village — of donors and poll respondents — to qualify for a presidential primary debate. As the presidential primary moves along, marginal candidates slowly but surely drop out as it becomes clear that they lack the financial or popular support to keep going. In recent years, one factor in this winnowing process has been a candidate's ability to qualify for primary debates — and a failure to qualify might portend the near-term end of a candidate's campaign. Heading into the GOP's third debate on Nov. 8 in Miami, the Republican National Committee's requirements to make the stage could prove too high a hurdle for some Republicans to overcome.

Based on 538's analysis of polling and donor information, four Republicans appear to have qualified for next week's gathering. The status of one other candidate, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, is more up in the air. Some surprising last-minute polls can't be ruled out, but at this point the third debate stage is likely to have at most five contenders — down from seven at the second debate in September. This doesn't include former President Donald Trump, the clear front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, who once again plans to skip this debate despite having the polls and donors to qualify.

As it did before the second debate, the RNC increased the thresholds for polling and donor support required to make the upcoming event. A candidate must have at least 4 percent support in two national polls, or at least 4 percent in one nationwide survey as well as two polls from separate early states, based on polls conducted since Sept. 1 that meet the RNC's criteria for inclusion. This marks a small but important uptick from the 3 percent support level needed for the second debate. Candidates also need at least 70,000 unique donors — up from 50,000 for the second debate — including at least 200 from 20 different states or territories. Finally, candidates must sign the RNC's pledge to support the party's eventual nominee, which all of the remaining "major" contenders (per 538's criteria) have done, save for Trump.

The main question surrounding third debate qualification involves Scott's standing. His campaign claims that the South Carolina senator is in — yet his situation has question marks. Scott announced last week that he had reached 70,000 contributors, and he has qualifying polls of 4 percent or better from three early states. This leaves him needing one national poll at 4 percent to make the stage, but it's not clear that he has one. Based on 538's analysis, Scott has not reached 4 percent in any of the national polls that we are most confident meet the RNC's criteria for poll eligibility. Under those requirements, a poll must have a sample of at least 800 likely Republican voters, must ask about presidential preference before other questions that could bias the ballot question and must not be conducted by a pollster affiliated with a candidate or candidate committee.

According to Politico, Scott's campaign claims he meets the national polling requirement based on a September poll from YouGov Blue/The Liberal Patriot that found him at 4 percent nationally. However, the screening question used for determining likely primary voters resulted in the survey including a large number of Democrats in the sample. Additionally, the primary ballot question followed a battery of questions about potential general election matchups. It's unclear whether this poll will actually pass muster with the RNC, which has not confirmed Scott's qualification status to ABC News. Still, we can't rule out the release of some last-minute polls over the weekend that help make Scott a more certain qualifier.

Outside of Scott, three candidates had a straightforward time meeting the polling and donor standards. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy received 4 percent or more in almost every national and early-state poll that appears to have met the RNC's standards for inclusion. And each had little trouble with the donor requirement.

A fourth expected qualifier, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had a bumpier road. Christie has just one qualifying national poll, a late September survey from InsiderAdvantage that had him at 5 percent. Otherwise, he's mostly polled around 3 percent in nationwide surveys. But combined with sufficient support in early-state polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Christie appears to have narrowly met the polling requirement. He also apparently has enough donors: Christie's campaign announced it had 70,000 donors on Oct. 24, just a couple of weeks ahead of the debate.

Beyond those five, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is the only remaining contender within shouting distance of qualification. He announced in late October that he had 70,000 donors, and he also has one qualifying poll from New Hampshire, which means he needs two more polls — either two national polls of 4 percent or better, or one national poll and one poll from a different early state at that support level. But that's going to be challenging: Although a last-minute qualifying poll from Iowa seems possible — he came up just short there in a September survey from the Trafalgar Group — Burgum has rarely surpassed 1 percent in national surveys, making a 4 percent poll result relatively unlikely.

Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seems all-but-winnowed at this point. He failed to make the second debate, has zero qualifying polls for this debate, had a poor third quarter fundraising report and just saw his campaign manager leave the campaign because of Hutchinson's lack of viability as a candidate.

Fundraising struggles and difficulties with debate qualification likely played a role in another recent development: former Vice President Mike Pence's exit from the race on Oct. 28. Although Pence had enough national polling support to meet the third debate's polling requirement — thanks in part to his high name recognition — Pence had posted sluggish fundraising numbers that not only threatened his campaign's ability to maintain its efforts on the ground, but also made it difficult to reach the 70,000 donors needed for qualification.

Finally, there's Trump, who has yet to appear on a debate stage while still maintaining a dominant hold on the Republican nomination race. At the second debate, some opponents went after Trump for not showing up, including Christie's effort to give Trump the sobriquet "Donald Duck." But understandably from a strategic vantage point, Trump didn't take the bait. After all, he's suffered no penalty in the polls for avoiding his primary opponents so far. Now the question is whether one of Trump's challengers can take advantage of a smaller debate stage to make a splash and remotely alter the course of the 2024 GOP primary.