CNBC Debate Criteria Likely To Be Bad News For Several Republican Candidates

The criteria for next month's third Republican Presidential debate have been announced, and they're likely to end up being bad news for several Republican candidates.

Republican Debate September 16 Two

CNBC just announced its rules for the next Republican debate on October 28th, and several candidates could end up being in serious trouble of being locked out even though the plan currently includes a plan for an undercard debate:

U.S. Republican presidential candidates polling an average of at least 2.5 percent in designated national opinion polls will qualify for a prime-time debate in Colorado on Oct. 28, the debate’s host, CNBC, said on Wednesday.

Candidates below that level, but scoring at least 1 percent in any of the six designated polls, will earn a place in the second-tier debate immediately preceding the main event, the cable news network said.

The two-hour prime-time debate, the third for the crowded Republican field, will start at 8 p.m. EDT at the University of Colorado Boulder and focus on topics including the economy, taxes and jobs, CNBC said.

While 3 percent was set as the official threshold for the main debate, the network said the average of the polls conducted between Sept. 17 and Oct. 21 would be rounded up to that figure for any candidate with at least 2.5 percent.

Nine candidates would currently qualify for the main debate, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls. That group would consist of front-runner Donald Trump, retired physician Ben Carson, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Candidates currently qualifying for the second-tier debate would be Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former New York Governor George Pataki.

Right off the top, the announcement that there would indeed be an early debate for those who didn’t qualify for the main stage but otherwise met certain other criteria comes as something of a surprise. In the aftermath of the last debate earlier this month, there had been some discussion from high-ranking officials with the Republican National Committee, as well as from NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd who is involved in planning the debate, that there would not be an undercard debate in the October debate, and presumably none in any of the subsequent debates. As I’ve said, this strikes me as being a wise decision given the fact that the last undercard debate proved to be entirely worthless and none of the candidates that would make such a debate were likely to have any real impact on the race going forward. The fact that CNBC and the RNC have decided to go forward with another debate consisting of people at the bottom of the polls is unfortunate from that point of view, but I suppose it’s understandable given the fact that the Republican field is still unusually large even with the recent withdrawals of Rick Perry and Scott Walker.

Even with the new undercard debate, though, there are several candidates who are likely to come out as losers under these new criteria. The most prominent candidate that will likely be negatively impacted by the new debate rules is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. With the main debate now having a qualifying requirement that a candidate average at least 3.0% in the in the national polls, he now stands to be the one candidate locked out of prime time. According to the RealClearPolitics national poll average, Paul is presently averaging 2.3% and in the somewhat more comprehensive Pollster average, he’s averaging 2.5%. Worse for Paul, the two most recent national polls, from USA Today/Suffolk and NBC News/Wall Street Journal have Paul at 2% and 3% respectively, which is far below where had been even two months ago. If Paul continues trending downward in the national polls over the next seventeen days, he risks falling below a 2.4% average, which would leave him off the main stage. If he’s at 2.5% or higher, his number will be rounded up and he’ll be on the main stage.  In even more serious danger are Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore. According to an analysis done independently by Mediaite and Vox, based on the current numbers all five of them would fail to qualify for the undercard debate. Another analysis suggests that Santorum and Jindal would be the only ones to qualify for the early debate, while Paul would just eke out enough support to get into the main debate. Based on the RealClearPolitics numbers as of today, every candidate except Paul is in danger of being excluded from the debate, while the Pollster numbers would suggest that Mike Huckabee and John Kasich are in danger of being pushed into an undercard debate that only they would be eligible to participate in.

Obviously, there are likely to be changes to these numbers over the coming weeks, but it seems likely that who gets invited to this next debate could, along with the fundraising numbers that will be released starting as early a tomorrow, could go a long way toward winnowing the Republican field going forward. Any candidate who fails to qualify for even the undercard debate this time is going to have a hard time justifying a campaign, for example, and if candidates like Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, or John Kasich end up getting relegated to the early debate it will send a message to donors and supporters that their campaigns are dying. At that point, it will likely be time for them to give up the ghost.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Paul has given up on his presidential campaign to concentrate on his run to keep his Senate seat. Jindal was always out of the game as was Christie and Graham,

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It’s a four-race race now.

    1) There’s the contest for biggest a-hole (Trump, Fiorina, Cruz, Huckabee.)
    2) The contest for most completely batshit (Carson has total dominance here.)
    3) The race to be the next billionaire’s purse dog. (Jeb, Rubio, Kasich.)
    4) Comic relief. (Graham, Christie, Jindal, Paul.)

    Who will the GOP choose? Will it come down to A-hole vs. Purse Dog? What then of the GOP’s powerful batshit constituency? Where will the escaped mental patients throw their support?


  3. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    most completely batshit (Carson has total dominance here.)

    I think you underestimate Cruz. Carson is certainly the most likely to say something loopy that makes you say “Whuh?”, but Cruz might just be a genuine psychopath in the Jim Jones mold.

  4. michael reynolds says:


    Oh, you’re preaching to the choir on that. I think Cruz is crazy, but more in that bargain-basement super-villain sort of way. Carson I think is more crazy than evil, while Cruz is more evil than crazy. Granted that the categories have quite a bit of overlap.

  5. Tyrell says:

    This is prime cut proof that the news media is engineering all this stuff.

  6. Tillman says:

    While it’s not as sexy, it’s worth pointing out the first Democratic primary debate will be weeks before this on October 13th.

  7. Andre Kenji says:

    In some sense, I like Ben Carson, at least when he is not talking about politics. And I think that he is destroying his biography with his presidential run.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    If Jindal, Santorum, Pataki, Graham, and Jim whatshisname drop out or get pushed out of the race, isn’t it like your bagpipe being out of tune? How would you notice?

  9. Mike in FL says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Ted Cruz is a used car salesman. He’s trying to sell me the political equivalent of a Geo Metro, and I’m not buying it.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Mike in FL:

    Ted Cruz is a used car salesman.

    I get more of a “faith healer” vibe. He’s going to miraculously cure your cancer, if you just believe (and donate)…

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Yeah. I see “used car salesman” as a better fit for Trump. And Fiorina. Cruz is nuts, or pretending to be. Carson is just nuts.

  12. Grumpy Realist says:

    One commentator pointed out that at the rate of attrition, we’re going to have to have 14 more debates to figure out who’s King of the Hill and the last debate will happen just after the general election.

    They’re going to have to start pitching them over the side of the boat more quickly.

  13. J-Dub says:

    If given the chance to punch one of them in the face, Cruz wins hands down.

  14. michael reynolds says:


    No question. Cruz takes the first punch. Then Trump, Carson, Fiorina and of course Jeb just because he won’t know how to fight back.

  15. Lenoxus says:

    @J-Dub: If I were the punching type I’d probably also target Cruz first. But more people would support punching Trump. Like, if some kind of Kickstarter could be arranged…