First GOP debate: All the candidates onstage for the first debate, explained

The 2024 presidential election is finally picking up, as the Republican Party holds its first presidential debate, hosted by Fox News, on Wednesday.

As of Monday — the deadline to qualify — as many as 11 of the 14 declared candidates vying for the party’s nomination appear to have met the standards to participate, though the Republican National Committee has only confirmed eight of them, including the party’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, who has reportedly decided not to attend. A ninth qualifier, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, looks likely to make the stage after the RNC reviews his donor list and polls.

The seven currently confirmed participants — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — will have their first major opportunity to claw away support from Trump, who leads the field with the support of just over half of Republican voters, according to polling averages.

The contenders will meet at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a two-hour debate, starting at 8 pm local time. Fox News will air it on their cable TV channel and livestream it online and on their streaming platform Fox Nation. Longtime Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will moderate.

To make the debate stage, candidates faced two major hurdles: accumulating donations from a total of 40,000 unique donors, with at least 200 of those donations coming from unique individuals in 20 states or territories, and receiving the support from at least 1 percent of voters in three national polls, or 1 percent of voters in both two national polls and two early state polls, like Iowa or New Hampshire. The point of those requirements was to cull the field of contenders to those who seemed like they could actually be serious candidates for the nomination — even as it appears to be Trump’s contest to lose. Participants have also been asked to sign a “loyalty pledge” to support the eventual GOP nominee.

Even without the full field, the debate stage will still be pretty crowded — albeit not quite as full as the 2020 Democratic primary debates or the 2016 Republican debates — so you can be forgiven for not knowing exactly where all these candidates fall on the political spectrum in terms of their loyalty to Trump or their prospects as general election candidates. So, before debate day, I’ve decided to sort the seven candidates into categories that will make it easier to understand the dynamics of the GOP primary so far.

Excluding Trump, those categories are the donor-favorite Trump rivals, the former Trump allies turned critics, the rich vanity campaigners who aren’t explicitly attacking Trump, and the promising Republican who missed their moment.

Not included in this list are the handful of candidates who may not have their participation confirmed by the RNC, or who haven’t met the requirements outright. Of those, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and businessman Perry Johnson have said they finished meeting the polling requirement in the last few days. Former US Rep. Will Hurd and Larry Elder, the one-time California gubernatorial candidate, have hit only the donor threshold. Ryan Binkley, a Texas pastor, has met neither.

The donor-favorite Trump rivals

Composed of Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott, this category could also be called “the legitimate Trump challengers,” save that neither appears likely to overtake the former president at the moment. Instead, a better way to think of these two is as the current favorites of Republican donors — the two primary challengers with the biggest cash reserves (aside from Trump), who are getting the most attention from big-money donors and polling well in Iowa, even if they have yet to replicate that success nationally.

Much has been written both to hype up and to eulogize DeSantis’s presidential prospects, but in reality, he is still the most credible national rival to Trump, even if his odds of winning the nomination have soured. His support in primary polling has collapsed over the summer, despite his campaign’s attempts to “reset,” pivot to being more open with mainstream media outlets, and be more frugal in its spending. But on debate night, he may be able to take on one of the biggest criticisms he and his campaign team have faced: that he hasn’t done more to clearly distinguish himself from the frontrunner or go after the former president.

It’s not clear that he will. Debate prep posted online by the super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, and reported on by the New York Times less than a week before the event, advised DeSantis to double down on defending Trump, attack Joe Biden and the media, and “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur gaining support in national and early state polls.

The proposed strategy reveals a key problem for DeSantis: In the months since announcing his candidacy, he has yet to find a meaningful crack in Trump’s support among Republican primary voters. And his efforts to do so pose a danger of their own. An extreme stance on cultural issues could turn off more moderate voters from supporting him, but it has done little to convince Trump’s most loyal supporters to abandon him for DeSantis.

My colleague Nicole Narea warned about this exact scenario last fall, when lots of political reporting was playing up DeSantis’s reelection in Florida as evidence that he could be a real alternative to Trump.

Scott, meanwhile, has seen himself in Ramaswamy’s position before: singled out by DeSantis allies as a serious challenger to the Florida governor. A DeSantis campaign memo leaked to NBC News in early July acknowledged Scott “has earned a serious look at this stage,” and noted that they expected “Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.” That scrutiny has yet to materialize, but Scott did attract some attention for a spat with DeSantis over DeSantis’s support for new education standards that required Florida middle school educators to teach students about beneficial skills developed by enslaved people.

As DeSantis’s prospects have grown murkier and his fundraisers worry about his future, top Republican donors have begun to look toward Scott as a possible alternative. Scott’s spending in recent months reflects some of those money moves. While DeSantis’s heavy early spending has forced him to conserve cash, rely more on his super PAC, and shrink his staff, Scott has been making big ad buys and stumping around Iowa, offering what the Wall Street Journal recently called “an optimistic message” that “generally refrains from attacking rivals.” His polling support has increased, and by the time candidates had to disclose their midyear fundraising totals this summer, Scott had nearly double the cash on hand that DeSantis had. To show how serious this new money advantage is, consider this observation from Real Clear Politics reporter Philip Wegmann: Scott’s ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire for the late summer-early fall sprint is bigger than the cash DeSantis’s campaign has on hand in total.

The former Trump allies turned critics

The next category is a lonely one in the current GOP. Mike Pence and Chris Christie both spent four years in Trump’s orbit — Pence as vice president, Christie as an informal campaign adviser — but have since become critics of the former president. And Asa Hutchinson, who Trump helped get reelected in 2018 and who supported the former president’s 2020 reelection effort, has leaned into an anti-Trump candidacy.

Pence is the best-polling of the trio, while Christie appears to be the best funded. While Christie has been a Trump critic for longer than Pence — attacking him during the 2016 election (then supporting his reelection effort) and again turning on him after the 2020 election over Trump’s claims of election fraud and the January 6 Capitol attack — Pence has only recently turned on Trump, fueled mostly by the congressional and federal investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and now Trump’s indictments.

Their chances at winning the nomination are slim to none at the moment. Pence struggled to even qualify for the debate because of low fundraising numbers, while Christie has managed to piss off just about every demographic group in both parties, according to a recent Fox News poll.

Choosing to embark on the campaign as the clear anti-Trump Republican candidate was a dangerous choice: The first reports on Christie’s entry noted that Christie might just be limited to the “small but passionate” subset of Republican voters who are fed up with Trump, his personal vendettas, and election fraud claims.

As the base has coalesced around the former president, Christie has managed to gain some ground in New Hampshire, where DeSantis’s slippage seems to have redirected voters looking beyond Trump to Christie. But that’s a matter of margins: Trump still dominates the primary field with support from half of Republican voters in that state. Pence, meanwhile, barely cracks the single-digit mark in that August Emerson College poll.

Hutchinson, similarly, has little chance of being the nominee. He announced over the weekend that he had finally reached the 40,000-donor mark after meeting the polling requirement — but he has yet to crack 1 percent of support in polling averages. The former governor is a stalwart conservative — a friend to the NRA, anti-abortion activists, and immigration hawks in the pre-Trump era. He worked closely with Trump on immigration policy, but toed a careful line in criticizing him during his presidency. Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims were the breaking point, though; since Trump’s loss, Hutchinson has been one of the most conservative GOP figures to call on Trump to drop out of the 2024 contest and for the party to move on.

The rich-guy vanity campaigners

This category could also be called the “wait, who?” category: rich guys boosting their own campaigns with personal money and hoping to build national profiles. The biggest name here, Vivek Ramaswamy, has seen his star rise over the summer, at least enough to warrant attention from DeSantis and from Trump, who has shared polls showing Ramaswamy’s rise and DeSantis’s struggles. Surprisingly, Ramaswamy is outperforming established Republican voices like Scott, Pence, Christie, and Haley in recent national polling. And he has no shortage of money — he has said he’s prepared to spend more than $100 million of his biotech fortune on the race.

My colleague Andrew Prokop has a good profile and explainer of the candidate, who is happy to go after DeSantis but defend Trump, has stated unorthodox opinions on America’s support for Ukraine and Taiwan, and is eager to attack progressive culture positions around affirmative action and trans people.

On Wednesday, he’s likely to attack DeSantis, who will be the highest-polling candidate onstage in Trump’s absence. And he may choose to defend Trump in absentia from criticism by Christie and Pence.

The other rich guy onstage, Doug Burgum, the term-limited billionaire governor of North Dakota, is hardly a household name, but he does have a past political upset on the books. His first victory in the North Dakota governor’s race, in 2016, was also his first entry into electoral politics, and he beat the state party’s preferred pick. Yet he’s only registered under a percent of support among Republican voters in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, despite spending millions on TV ads to introduce himself to voters. To meet the donor requirement for the stage, he gave away $20 Visa and Mastercard gift cards to donors who gave him a dollar. And he could do a lot more of that going forward; he’s even wealthier than Ramaswamy, and has already loaned his campaign $10 million, according to FEC data.

With that much money and no obvious path beyond the governor’s office, however, a presidential campaign seems like a vanity affair. Burgum has chosen not to attack Trump, or even comment on Trump’s indictments, so how he behaves on the stage will be the first opportunity most Americans will have to find out what motivates him.

The promising Republican who missed her moment

The final category is a category of one: Nikki Haley, the once-ascendant former UN ambassador and governor of South Carolina, who at one point seemed like the future of her party but now appears trapped in limbo. She has a small national following, more than Christie or her fellow Carolinian Tim Scott, but still far behind Pence, Ramaswamy, DeSantis, and, obviously, Trump.

She entered the field with a promise to take on “bullies” and bring a fresh face to the Republican Party, all without mentioning Donald Trump. In doing so, she was calling back to a different era of the GOP, as Ben Jacobs wrote for Vox at the time:

“Haley won the 2010 primary [for governor] as an underdog at the height of the Tea Party movement with the endorsement of Sarah Palin. In office, she seemed the personification of the political id of the moment within the GOP. An ardent fiscal conservative, she also made gestures toward a truce on culture war issues by veering toward the middle.”

In the 2023 Republican Party, however, the Haley brand doesn’t seem to be clicking. A political chameleon, she doesn’t seem to have a strong identity, political movement, or direction on culture war issues, taking cues on what to say from what her rivals are saying. Her foreign policy stances are ambivalent, she has made profound declarations about abortion without really breaking new ground, and she has been careful with her criticism of Trump, attacking the Justice Department while also criticizing Trump’s judgment in the classified documents case.

On the debate stage, she’s likely to avoid attacking Trump directly and instead argue that it is time to move on, while still acknowledging his accomplishments. “While I think he was the right president at the right time … I don’t think he’s the right president at the right time going forward,” she told CBS News in late July. Just how long she stays in the race is also an open question: With just $6.8 million in cash on hand as of July, she’s neither a prodigious fundraiser nor the biggest spender, so she’ll have to rely on media attention and the debate stage a little bit more than her rivals.