What to know about the first Republican presidential debate — and who qualified

On August 23, the Republican primary will get underway in earnest as the party holds its first official presidential debate.

Poised to be a crowded affair, the debate will be a chance for candidates to try to cut into former President Donald Trump’s hefty lead — and to differentiate themselves from a packed field. Thus far, seven candidates appear to have qualified for the event, which is a prime opportunity to gin up donations and voter interest.

It’s still unclear if Trump will attend the debate given the polling advantage he’s had up until now. It’s likely multiple candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, however, will seize this platform to both raise their profiles and attempt to undercut Trump.

“The biggest open question right now with this debate is does Donald Trump even show up and is there even a reason for Donald Trump to show up?” says Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump GOP group that’s not affiliated with any candidates.

Below is everything we know about the debate so far.

When is the first Republican debate?

The debate will take place on Wednesday, August 23, at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and go from 8 to 10 pm local time. It will air on Fox News and be livestreamed on Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, two longtime anchors with the network, will moderate.

What are the criteria to make the debate stage?

There are two key hurdles candidates have to clear on donations and polling in order to qualify for the debate stage. First, candidates need to have a total of 40,000 unique donors, including at least 200 unique donors in 20 states or territories. Secondly, they have to hit at least 1 percent support in three national polls or 1 percent support in two national polls and 1 percent support in two early state polls.

Additionally, candidates — who have until August 21 to meet this criteria — have to pledge to support the 2024 party nominee.

Who has qualified so far?

Seven Republican candidates have qualified so far based on publicly available data, and self-reported information from multiple campaigns, the New York Times reports. Those who’ve appeared to hit the necessary polling and donation thresholds include:

  • Former President Donald Trump: Polls currently have the former president as the decisive frontrunner, despite the costly and serious criminal investigations he’s under. A recent New York Times/Siena poll has Trump at 54 percent likely Republican voter support, and DeSantis — his closest competitor — at 17 percent.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: DeSantis is widely viewed as Trump’s chief opponent in the primary, though he’s struggled to gain momentum since his campaign launch. For some Republicans, DeSantis — who has touted a discriminatory anti-trans, anti-DEI policy platform — was initially viewed as Trump without the legal baggage. Many voters appear interested in sticking by Trump, however, as DeSantis has gotten blowback for legislative positions on abortion and immigration, and fumbled stump speech appearances.

    The debate is a key chance for DeSantis to try to win over some of the voters who like Trump, but are worried that his many indictments and lawsuits could drag him down in a general election.

  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: One of the most vocal Trump critics in the primary, Christie has focused heavily on courting the narrow anti-Trump wing of the party. A more moderate Republican who has criticized Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, Christie has made confrontation with his former ally a central part of his pitch.

    The debate is an opportunity for him to continue criticizing Trump, and to own this lane further.

  • Sen. Tim Scott: Scott, a three-term senator known for attempting to work on a deal on police reform, has positioned himself as a potential alternative to Trump and DeSantis. He’s criticized Trump at times, but hasn’t taken a strong stance overall, and has instead focused his message on faith and his success as a Black Republican.
  • Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: Haley has tried to frame herself as more moderate relative to the frontrunners, and has also flip-flopped in the past when it comes to attacks on Trump. As a former member of his administration, Haley has emphasized her experience as an ambassador to the UN and her work on foreign policy.

    For both Scott and Haley, the debate is a crucial moment for them to appeal to more voters and try to rise above the single digits they’ve been polling in.

  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum: Burgum has centered his campaign on the economy, including combating inflation, and sought to steer clear of culture war issues. He’s well-liked in the state of North Dakota, but has much less of a national profile compared to some of the other candidates on the stage. The debate offers him a chance to introduce himself to a broader audience.
  • Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy: Ramaswamy, the author of Woke Inc., is one of many Republicans who has made criticizing so-called wokeness in investing a major aspect of his platform. He’s made defending Republicans’ free speech rights a chief aspect of his candidacy. Ramaswamy has been on a media blitz and has seen some gains in the polls. The debate is a chance for him to turn his longshot candidacy into something more serious.

Who hasn’t qualified so far?

Some of Trump’s critics, including former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Rep. Will Hurd have yet to hit the necessary requirements to make the debate stage. All three have fallen short of the number of donors needed, and Hutchinson and Hurd have both thus far appeared to miss the polling requirement as well. Hurd has also refused to sign a commitment pledging loyalty to the Republican nominee.

Will Trump attend?

So far, it’s not yet clear if Trump will attend since he’s established such a dominant polling lead over the rest of the field. Barring major changes, it is difficult to see how any of his rivals could defeat him in the primaries.

In 2016, Trump once skipped a primary debate amidst a feud with Fox News anchor and moderator Megyn Kelly. Missing that debate obviously didn’t stop him from winning the presidency that year. It’s possible he could decide to skip a debate again and even hold a competing rally in an attempt to divert attention from the other candidates.

Who could be Trump’s biggest challenger?

At the moment, Trump doesn’t really have a serious challenger. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows the former president only widening his massive lead with time: He’s currently nearly 40 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, DeSantis, and about 45 percentage points ahead of Ramaswamy, his next closest challenger.

All of the other candidates are likely hoping to turn in debate performances that will change their races. The debate is a major chance for DeSantis in particular to try to establish himself and prove that he’s a more electable alternative to Trump — an argument he’s already begun to make on the campaign trail. It’s not evident how convincing he will be due to Trump’s enduring support in the polls, and due to the hardline, nationally unpopular positions DeSantis has taken on issues like abortion — including signing a six-week ban.

Others poised to mount a vocal challenge to Trump include Christie, who has already repeatedly condemned the former president’s election denials. Christie’s chances are limited in the primary since so many voters remain loyal to Trump, but the debate is a platform for him to continue to hammer this message, and perhaps weaken the former president’s standing slightly.

Why does the debate matter?

A strong debate performance could lead to a bump in the polls, an influx of fundraising, and broader momentum that sets candidates apart from a crowded field. Each of the non-Trump candidates struggling in the former president’s shadow could use a boost.

In 2020, for example, Vice President Kamala Harris saw a temporary polling bump when she had a viral moment confronting President Joe Biden at the first Democratic debate. And in 2016, Trump capitalized on the first presidential debate to solidify the support he had in the polls.

“For many, they see the debate as the best way to generate interest and enthusiasm in their campaigns,” George Washington University politics professor Todd Belt previously told Vox. “This translates into more media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteers. All of these are necessary to wage a successful presidential nomination campaign — even more so with such a strong frontrunner in the field.”