What’s The Deal With The GOP Debate Criteria?

What’s The Deal With The GOP Debate Criteria?


Nathaniel Rakich: The social event of the season is coming up, and everyone’s desperate to be invited. Yes, I’m talking about the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate!

The Met Gala, it ain’t. But Republican presidential candidates are still bending over backward for a ticket. To get one, they’ll have to get past a pretty tough bouncer: the Republican National Committee, which has announced a list of strict criteria that candidates must meet in order to get on that debate stage. Except, those criteria seem kind of arbitrary. So, what’s the deal with the Republican debate criteria?

Interested in joining other Republican candidates for the Aug. 23 debate? First, you’ll need to be a constitutionally eligible, declared presidential candidate who has filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s the easy part. You’ll also need to reach 1 percent support in at least three national polls or two national polls and two polls of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.

That rule seems to be inspired by what Democrats required for their first debate in the 2020 primary: three national or early-state polls from certain pollsters in which the candidate got at least 1 percent support. But the RNC’s rules are arguably even stricter because it’s very picky about which polls it’s going to count. For instance, qualifying polls must survey at least 800 registered likely Republican voters. That’s a high bar! Most polls don’t even interview 800 people — it’s too expensive. And there’s also a requirement that polls “not overly weight responses of any individual cohort beyond the margin of the error of the poll.” Now, I write about polls for a living, and even I’m not sure what that means. So there’s still room for interpretation as to which polls will be counted.

But OK — let’s say you snag all three (or four) polls you need. You’ll then need to meet the RNC’s fundraising requirement: at least 40,000 unique donors to your campaign, with at least 200 unique donors in at least 20 states or territories. That’s also based on what the Democrats did four years ago, except they required even more donors.

But even 40,000 donors has proved difficult for some Republican campaigns to reach. So they’ve resorted to some pretty creative gimmicks to pump up their numbers. For instance, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez literally gave away money to get people to donate to them. If someone gave just $1 to their campaigns, they would send them a $20 gift card. I’m guessing that’s not what the RNC had in mind when they created this requirement!

Finally, the RNC is requiring debate participants to sign a loyalty pledge. This includes agreeing to share their data with the RNC, not to participate in any non-RNC-sanctioned debates and, most controversially, to support the eventual Republican nominee in November 2024. That could be a deal-breaker for some candidates — like former Rep. Will Hurd, who strongly opposes former President Donald Trump and says he’s not willing to sign a pledge to support him. But other anti-Trump candidates might not be so reluctant. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has also been critical of Trump, has hinted that he might sign the pledge and then just ignore it if Trump is the nominee. Which raises another question: Since the RNC doesn’t really have a way to enforce the pledge after the fact, what do they do in that case? Just take candidates at their word?

As I mentioned in my last video, there are literally hundreds of Republicans running for president. They can’t all make the stage — I’m pretty sure that would be a fire-code violation. So the RNC definitely needed to come up with some sort of rubric for who would make the cut. But it turns out, that’s easier said than done. Some of these criteria have had unintended consequences, like the donor one. Others might force the RNC into making uncomfortable judgment calls, like the polling or pledge criteria. Someone at the RNC is probably wishing right about now that they had just saved themselves the trouble and pulled names out of a hat.

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