The first Republican presidential debate is still three months away, but as the field grows, the Republican National Committee is already discussing how it plans to decide which candidates will land a spot on the stage in Milwaukee.
The RNC is planning its first set of presidential debates since the 2016 cycle, when Donald Trump dominated a crowded GOP field on his path to victory. Recently, the committee has floated a plan to multiple campaigns for the first debate, scheduled for August, of only allowing candidates that are polling at 1% or higher and have had at least 40,000 donors, according to people with knowledge of the conversations.
Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is now president of the Young America’s Foundation, one of the organizations partnering with the RNC to host that debate, tells TIME those numbers are in line with what he has heard, though he has not formally been told the debate criteria and does not know exactly when it will be set.
“From the early discussions I’ve heard about, without a final decision being made, there’ll probably be some sort of criteria for the number of individual donors, because that’s a good way to show that people have legitimacy,” Walker says. “At the same time, though, I don’t know that they’ll be quite as strict as they once were in the polls.”
The RNC did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the record before publication. If the committee sticks with the proposed criteria for the first debate in August, it will mark a change from the first debate of the 2016 cycle. The first GOP debate in August 2015 was split in two, with a prime-time debate for the ten candidates who averaged the highest national polling numbers, and an earlier undercard debate for candidates that didn’t make the top ten. The candidates with the lowest polling that secured a spot in prime-time were polling around 3%, according to a CNN report at the time. The RNC did not factor in a candidate’s donors in the criteria for that debate.
In 2020, when Democrats had the crowded field of presidential contenders, the Democratic National Committee only permitted candidates on stage for the first debate who were either polling at 1% or higher in an average of 3 national or early state polls, or had at least 65,000 different donors, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states.
The discussions between the RNC and campaigns about the first debate come as the GOP field is poised to grow. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is widely expected to jump in the race soon, and others, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, have strongly signaled they may as well.
If the debate were held now, the candidates who would clear the 1% threshold would include Trump, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy, according to RealClearPolitics’ latest polling averages. So too would Pence, DeSantis, Christie, Sununu, and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, if they were candidates. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who formally launched his campaign last month, is polling at 0.9%.
Walker says setting the polling threshold too high this early in the race could potentially knock out qualified candidates who would otherwise have a shot at the nomination. A donor threshold would ensure serious campaigns qualify, he adds. “Forty, fifty thousand individual donors—numbers like that are very realistic to say, ‘Okay, this is a legitimate candidate.’”
While some candidates may struggle to clear the 1% threshold, Trump is blowing the rest of the field out of the water. The RCP average finds that he has the support of a majority of Republican primary voters.
According to the New York Times, the former president has told aides and confidants that he is likely to opt out of some early presidential debates. The Washington Post reported last week that Trump has complained about the timing of the debates, though an RNC official told the Post that he did not raise concerns about the schedule when he was informed about it before it was announced. Furthermore, Trump has not agreed to unconditionally support the party’s eventual nominee, which RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has indicated is a prerequisite for making the debate stage.
“I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them,” Trump posted on Truth Social last month. “When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?”
Walker thinks that it would be a mistake for Trump to skip the first debate, which the former governor anticipates will have one of the largest audiences of any debate until mid-2024. He tells TIME that not attending would mean Trump missing an opportunity to appeal to curious general election voters, especially in a swing state as important as Wisconsin.
“He is a prizefighter, and prizefighters belong in the ring defending their title,” says Walker, who shared the presidential debate stage with him in 2015. And if Trump doesn’t show? “I think people will still tune in, but I think the audience clearly is going to be much larger if President Trump is there,” Walker says. “Not only does it hurt the debate and the candidates, but I think it hurts him.”
For other candidates who qualify, the first debate will be a critical opportunity to gain name recognition and draw a contrast with the former president. But without Trump in the room, that could be a lot tougher.
“He certainly knows that the media attention to this event will be X if he’s in the room and one-tenth of X if he’s not,” says Rick Wilson, the anti-Trump political strategist who co-founded the Lincoln Project. “He’s going to try to leverage his presence or lack of presence to make the debates inconsequential or to make it into a coronation. … I think what you’re going to see is the kids’ table. They are going to all go out there and desperately try to not say the T-word in the debate.”
Asked who might have a chance to beat the frontrunner, Wilson pauses. “God?” he offers. “I mean, maybe. And I’m not even giving him very good odds.”