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Who Will Be On The Presidential Debate Stages?


With the first 2024 GOP presidential primary debate two months away, which candidates will make it on stage?

Earlier this year, CNN predicted “the 2024 primary field could be the smallest on record in the modern era.” The cable news station noted the “last time there was a combined primary field with fewer than 20 major candidates was 2012. The last time there was one with 10 or fewer was 1992.”


The smallest primary field in the modern era, which CNN defines as starting in 1972?


That came in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan was running for reelection. A total of 17 Democrats and Republicans vied for their respective presidential nominations that year.


CNN thought the field could be smaller than that this year – but it looks like that might have been an erroneous projection.


With two new GOP candidates in the race, we wondered: two months out from the first primary debate, is CNN’s prediction holding up? Also: what are early polling numbers telling us about the GOP and Democratic presidential primary races and who will be included in the primary debates?


Let’s take a look.


How Many People Are Running For President?

Like public polling for the last few election cycles, CNN’s early prediction about the size of this year’s presidential field was wildly incorrect. In fact, in just the last week, two men – Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, both Republicans – have joined the race.


As of this morning, 14 Republicans and three Democrats have officially declared they are running to be our next commander in chief. The Green Party also has fielded a candidate, Cornel West, a firebrand philosopher, political activist, social critic, actor, and public intellectual who, even if he takes just a small portion of voters from the Democratic nominee in close states, could prove a spoiler in the 2024 general election.


For Republicans, former President Donald Trump was the first to announce his candidacy. He is joined by the man who served as his vice president (Mike Pence), the woman who served as his ambassador to the United Nations (Nikki Haley), two current governors, a former governor, two businessmen and a venture capitalist who have launched long-shot bids, U.S. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and a smattering of other presidential hopefuls.


The field also may not be completely set. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who is limited to one term in his state’s governor’s mansion and who has proven that he can win in a tough state for the GOP, also is reportedly considering a bid for the GOP nomination. And the rumor around Washington is that Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott is also considering jumping into the fray.


On the Democratic side, President Joe Biden is being challenged by self-help book author Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of former attorney general and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy and the nephew of the nation’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy. (Fun fact: only 12 individuals ran for president in 1960, the year that President Kennedy was elected to office.)


Many of these candidates will never make it to the debate stage, however.


Candidates Not Ready For Prime Time

According to ABC News, no sitting commander in chief since President Gerald Ford has participated in a presidential primary debate. That was 1976.


That’s not likely to change this year. In fact, the Democratic National Committee has thrown its full support behind President Biden and will not even hold debates for its candidates. That decision, of course, has prompted attacks by President Biden’s primary opponents. For example, Williamson has argued, “The people have a right to hear from other candidates, with other ideas. … Candidate suppression is a form of voter suppression, and the party that purports to be the champion of democracy should not be so wary of it in our own house.”


While Republicans, with a crowded field, will of course hold debates, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has set strict standards for deciding who will get on the stage. Specifically, the RNC has said a candidate must attain at least one percent support in three national polls or one percent in two national polls and one percent in a state poll from one of four early nominating states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada) to make it to the debate stage.


The RNC also will require candidates to have a minimum of 40,000 unique donors to their campaign committee or exploratory committee and at least 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 states in order to qualify for the debate stage.


The RNC added one more requirement this year. As the New York Post reported, all participants must sign a “pledge agreeing to support the party’s eventual standard-bearer and not participate in non-RNC sanctioned debates.” Signing this agreement obviously would preclude a debate participant from later running as an independent or as a third-party candidate. While Cornel West may prove a spoiler for Democrats, Republicans have limited that potential on their side, at least so far.


Now: what do early polls tell us about which candidates are likely to meet these metrics?


What Are The Election 2024 Polls Telling Us?

The news and elections website RealClearPolitics has a repository of every election-related poll, along with surveys about presidential job approval and how Americans feel about the direction in which the country is headed.


It’s absolutely clear from all of the polling being done with GOP primary voters that former President Trump is the Republican to beat.


A poll released by St. Anselm College in the early primary state of New Hampshire has President Trump with a 28-point lead over his nearest rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Gov. DeSantis is the only other Republican candidate to poll in the double digits. Nineteen percent of Republican voters said they plan to vote for the Florida governor. Rounding out the GOP’s top five are former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former South Carolina Gov. (and former Trump administration UN ambassador) Nikki Haley, Sen. Scott, former Vice President Pence, and venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy.


An NBC News poll released this past Sunday revealed similar results. In that survey, former President Trump had a 29-point lead over Gov. DeSantis, and Gov. DeSantis, at 22 percent, was still the only other Republican polling in the double digits. Rounding out the top five in that poll were former Vice President Pence, Haley, Sen. Scott, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.


Taking all early polls together, RealClearPolitics found former President Trump has an average 30-point lead over his Republican primary opponents. There are 10 candidates — former President Trump, Gov. DeSantis, former Vice President Pence, Haley, Sen. Scott, Christie, Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, conservative radio host Larry Elder, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Bargum, who have reached at least one percent in three national polls. These 10, at least, have met the polling criteria for inclusion in the first GOP presidential primary debate, which is set for late August.


Still, on the GOP side, if the race was decided today, the winner would be former President Donald Trump, and it wouldn’t be particularly close.


While Democrats will not hold debates, we can look at early polling in that race and the results there are even more resounding than they are on the GOP side. In fact, there is no poll going back to May in which President Biden has less than a 40-point lead over the two people who are challenging him.


Advantage Biden.


And, if the 2024 presidential election is a rematch of 2020 … who is likely to win? At this relatively early stage, that’s still anyone’s guess.


A Biden-Trump Rematch?

A Harris Poll released this week showed former President Trump with a three-point lead over President Biden in a head-to-head rematch of the 2020 election, but the St. Anselm College poll released yesterday showed the sitting president with a nine-point lead, and Sunday’s NBC News poll had President Biden up four points over President Trump in a hypothetical 2020 rematch.


In the RealClearPolitics average of polls for a Biden-Trump 2024 matchup, former President Trump is in the lead by a 0.2 percentage point margin – well within the margin of error.


Voters have not made up their minds. Probably because, in reality, many Americans would prefer to see a fresh face at the top of their party’s ticket.


As the New York Post reported earlier this month, a NewsNation and Decision Desk HQ poll found 49 percent of voters would give serious thought to voting for a third-party candidate if President Biden and former President Trump are the Democratic and Republican nominees in 2024. CNN has found 51 percent of Democrats want a candidate other than President Biden while 49 percent of Republicans do not want Donald Trump at the top of their ticket.


When NewsNation asked who voters would choose as their alternative, 20 percent said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 10 percent said former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), and seven percent said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Three individuals, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) each had the support of five percent of voters.


All to say: the 2024 primary race may not be set yet.

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