Once again, Trump won't participate.
WASHINGTON -- Get ready for a slightly cozier debate stage, America. Republicans look set to have seven participants in the party's second primary debate on Wednesday, down from eight at the first gathering in August. Despite meeting the Republican National Committee's qualifying thresholds, former President Donald Trump will once again not join in the festivities, instead opting to speak to current and former union members in Detroit as he's already looking beyond the GOP primary to a potential general election rematch against President Biden.
Overall, seven candidates besides Trump had sufficient polls and donors to qualify for the debate stage by the RNC's deadline this evening. Additionally, all seven signed the RNC's pledge to support the party's eventual nominee ahead of the last debate.
To meet the RNC's polling requirement, a candidate needed at least 3 percent support in two national polls, or at least 3 percent in one nationwide survey and two polls from separate early states, based on polls conducted since Aug. 1 that met the RNC's criteria for inclusion. Candidates also needed at least 50,000 unique contributors, with at least 200 from 20 different states or territories. The RNC raised the polling and donor standards used for the first debate, mandating 3 percent poll support instead of 1 percent and 50,000 donors instead of 40,000.
Six of the seven qualifiers comfortably met the polling and donor metrics to make the stage, based on 538's analysis. On the polling front, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy hit 3 percent in every qualifying national and state poll, while former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley missed the mark in just one survey of Iowa. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott each hit the 3 percent mark in at least three-fourths of national and state surveys. None of the qualified candidates had any lingering uncertainty about attracting enough donors, either, as the small uptick from 40,000 to 50,000 contributors proved easily surmountable.
However, the RNC's higher polling thresholds proved a challenge for the other contenders, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, the seventh and final candidate to qualify. Burgum announced in late July that he had 50,000 unique donors, and he attracted 3 percent in surveys from Iowa and New Hampshire. But that left him one national poll short of qualification. Early Saturday morning, though, the Trafalgar Group released a national poll that had Burgum at 3 percent, just allowing him to qualify for the stage.
Beyond Burgum, though, insufficient polling support kept the other candidates off stage, although some struggled to attract enough donors, too. Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd managed one qualifying early state poll out of New Hampshire, but no others. Hurd did announce that he had 50,000 donors on Monday afternoon, but his public opposition to signing the RNC's pledge may have always guaranteed he wouldn't participate in GOP debates this cycle, regardless of polls and donors. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson hit 3 percent in one national poll prior to the first debate, but he never got a second one - or 3 percent in any qualifying surveys from early states, for that matter. Hutchinson also appears to have come up short on attracting 50,000 donors, although he said just before the debate that he was close to reaching that threshold. Businessman Perry Johnson and radio personality Larry Elder argued the RNC should've allowed them to participate in the first debate - they even threatened legal action - but while Johnson did attract 50,000 donors, the two candidates have less of a case for the second debate because they have zero qualifying polls.
As for Trump, he's unlikely to suffer ill effects from blowing off another debate. Although some conservative voices have criticized Trump's decision to avoid debates, his choice to skip the first one did not cause his campaign any obvious harm. Before that event, he was polling in the mid-50s in 538's national polling average, and while his numbers sank slightly to just below 50 percent after it, they have returned to the mid-50s. Like it or not, Trump's behavior is in keeping with that of some front-running candidates in campaigns for other offices who decided there was insufficient upside to participating in a primary debate compared with the downside of providing their opponents with opportunities to attack them. And it appears Trump won't be attending a debate anytime soon, as Bloomberg reported last week that he also plans to skip the next one in early November.
That means we'll once again see an almost alternate universe at the second GOP gathering, as seven candidates will participate but the party's clear favorite won't. Although Wednesday's debate will give these Republicans the chance to make their pitches to GOP voters watching on Fox Business, the lack of any significant change in the campaign after the first debate makes it hard to know how any of them can shake things up in the second debate sufficiently to close the yawning gap between the rest of the field and Trump.