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What to watch for in the first 2024 GOP presidential debate

Wednesday marks the first debate of the 2024 presidential election, and there is an option to tune in for those without cable.
Posted at 2:36 PM, Aug 22, 2023

Wednesday will mark the first presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle, with eight Republicans sharing one stage in Milwaukee. While the debate includes eight of the top nine on the Republican side, the person who is leading in the polls, former President Donald Trump, will not be on hand. 

Here is a look at what to expect on Wednesday.

​​Setting the stage

The first Republican Party debate for the 2024 election cycle will include eight candidates. The debate will be aired on Fox News Wednesday starting at 9 p.m. Eastern. Those without cable can watch the debate on the website Rumble.

Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will moderate the debate. Baier hosted a GOP debate late in the 2016 primaries. 

The candidates

The Republican National Committee used polling, fundraising criteria, and other conditions to extend invitations to this week’s debate. On the fundraising side, candidates needed to have at least 40,000 donors. They also needed at least 1% of the votes in three national polls or 1% in two national polls and 1% in one early state poll from two separate "carve out" states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina). 

The RNC also required candidates to sign a pledge agreeing to support whoever ends up being the Republican nominee. It is believed Trump did not sign the pledge as he suggested to Newsmax earlier this month that he would not. 

With Trump out of the mix, the GOP announced who would take the stage on Wednesday:

- Gov. Doug Burgum

- Former Gov. Chris Christie

- Gov. Ron DeSantis

- Former Ambassador Nikki Haley

- Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson

- Former Vice President Mike Pence

- Vivek Ramaswamy

- Sen. Tim Scott

Trump says he will skip GOP presidential primary debates
Former President Donald Trump

Trump says he will skip GOP presidential primary debates

Trump had been discussing a number of debate counterprogramming options, including an interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

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Who will be left out

Several Republican candidates did not meet the criteria for Wednesday's debate. Among them are Larry Elder, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former Rep. Will Hurd. 

Isn’t this early for a debate?

The 2024 election will be held in less than 15 months. In 2020, the Democrats held their first presidential debates in late June 2019, nearly 17 months before the election. That debate had to be split between two nights as 20 candidates qualified for the stage. 

While the RNC did not hold formal debates for the 2020 primaries, the party held its first debate for the 2016 election on Aug. 6, 2015, about 15 months before the election.

While the Democrats did not hold their first debate until 13 months before the general election, that was relatively late. In 2008, the Democrats held their first debate more than 18 months before the general election. 

The GOP had its first debate 18 months out from the 2012 general election. In that case, it might have been a case of being too early. The May 2012 debate did not draw eventual nominee Mitt Romney to the stage.

Debate strategy for Gov. Ron DeSantis posted online by super PAC
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Debate strategy for Gov. Ron DeSantis posted online by super PAC

Information leaked shows how DeSantis aims to prepare for the first GOP debate.

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What do the polls say?

It really does not matter which national poll you look at — Trump is the GOP front-runner. Virtually every major national poll to come out in recent months has placed the former president above 50%. 

Whether Trump's absence creates an opening remains in question. The only other candidate who is polling in double figures in most polls, DeSantis, remains far behind. According to a recent CBS and YouGov poll,DeSantis has the support of 16% likely GOP primary voters nationwide. A recent Emerson poll had him at 10%, with roughly the same amount of support as Ramaswamy. 

The first debate tends to get a lot of attention. Ahead of the 2016 election, the first debate, which also appeared on Fox News, had 24 million viewers, the Associated Press reported.Even in one subsequent debate without Trump in January 2016, Fox News garnered an audience of 12.5 million, the AP reported. 

Counter-programming

While Trump is not appearing on a debate stage, he will still be heard from on Wednesday. He is scheduled to participate in an interview with former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. 

Focus of the debate

With the former president being out of the room, it's unknown how much Baier and MacCallum will want to focus on Trump and his four recent indictments. The candidates in the field have taken disparate positions on Trump's recent legal woes. Candidates such as Hutchinson have been critical of Trump's actions, but others like DeSantis have deemed the indictments politically motivated. 

Given Trump's popularity, it seems many candidates are preferring to take the fight to President Joe Biden. 

"We are going to hold him accountable for his failure," DeSantis said at a campaign fundraiser on Monday. "We're going to show the American people that there is a better way and we know that there is a better way."