GOP requires pledge to back nominee for first presidential debate

Patrick T. Fallon

The Republican National Committee is requiring presidential hopefuls to pledge to support the party's eventual nominee if they want to participate in the GOP's first primary debate in Milwaukee on Aug. 23.

The pledge comes as a handful of Republican presidential hopefuls have hedged whether they would support former President Donald Trump if he wins the party's presidential nomination.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is set to announce his presidential bid next week, told Axios earlier this year that he could never support Trump again.

Other potential Republican candidates, like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have gone a different route: Sununu argued that while he will back the nominee, Trump won't be that person next year.

And Trump himself hasn't said if he'd sign such a pledge: "There are probably people that I wouldn't be very happy about endorsing who are running, so we'll see," he said in March.

NBC News has also reported that Trump is considering skipping the first Republican debates.

Republicans will hold their first presidential primary debate in Wisconsin in late August. The field will meet on Aug. 23, and if enough candidates have qualified, the RNC will add another event on Aug. 24. Early Democratic debates in 2019 and Republican debates in 2015 split candidates up over multiple days because of the size of the field.

On top of pledging to support the nominee, the party also wants candidates to meet a series of polling and fundraising thresholds and to pledge not to participate in any non-RNC-sponsored debate.

Last year, the RNC voted to require its candidates not to join general election debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan group that has run general election presidential debates for decades, through the 2020 race between Trump and Joe Biden.

Would-be Republican presidential debaters will also need to meet broad polling requirements, hitting at least 1% in three qualifying national polls conducted after July 1 — or in two national polls plus two polls from two of the four states holding early nominating contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina).

The RNC did not identify a list of sanctioned pollsters, instead releasing broad methodological criteria it would accept in qualifying polls. Two of the criteria: a sample size of at least 800 registered likely Republican voters and results that were not "overly" weighted.

The sample size could be an important issue: Relatively few pollsters — including many of the firms that partner with media organizations — contact that many respondents in primary polls, in part because of the high costs associated with calling people by phone.

For example, NBC News' last poll in August surveyed 1,000 registered voters overall.

Republican candidates will also need to raise money from a minimum of 40,000 unique donors, including 200 unique donors from at least 20 states and territories, according to the newly released RNC criteria.

Setting donor thresholds isn't new, as Democrats included a similar requirement for their debates in the 2020 election cycle. But during the first Democratic debate in 2019, candidates could qualify either through polling or by crossing a fundraising threshold. Republicans, this time, are requiring their candidates hit both.

Ahead of the Democratic Party's first debate in 2019, the party said that 14 of its candidates had hit both the party's 65,000 unique donor threshold and its polling threshold in time for that debate.

CORRECTION (July 19, 2023, 10:50 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated one way a candidate can qualify for the Aug. 23 debate. A candidate must register 1% in two national polls and 1% in two polls -- not one -- from two of the four states holding early nominating contests. (The other way to qualify is to hit at least 1% in three qualifying national polls conducted after July 1.)

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