The Stage For The First Post-Iowa Republican Debate Will Be A Lot Smaller

The first debate after the Iowa Caucuses will have fewer participants than past debates, and there will be no undercard debate.

Sixth Repulican Debate

After tonight’s Trump-less debate in Iowa, the next Republican debate will be on February 6th in New Hampshire, just a few days before the New Hampshire primary and it looks as though it will have far fewer participants than any debate so far:

ABC News will not include an undercard contest during its Republican presidential debate in February, according to new criteria released from the network.

The decision threatens to cut the debate stage to as few as six candidates just three days before New Hampshire primary

Candidates will have three avenues to make the debate stage. The top three finishers in the Iowa caucuses’ popular vote will punch a ticket to the stage, as well as any candidate polling within the top six in averages of recent New Hampshire or national polls. ABC News sources confirmed that there will not be an additional debate for those candidates who do not meet that criteria.

That could make Thursday’s debate on Fox News the last chance for a handful of candidates to prove to a national audience why they belong on the debate stage.

As polling stands so far, the new criteria would drop Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum from the national stage. While Chris Christie and John Kasich aren’t polling as well nationally or in Iowa, they could be saved by strong polling in New Hampshire.

But since the network will consider polling up through next Thursday, three days after the Iowa caucuses, any surprises in the caucuses could translate to a last-minute bump or dive at the polls that could threaten to shake up the field days before the vital contest. Some candidates also may drop out after poor showings in Iowa, further winnowing the field.

Of the candidates likely to be excluded from any stage, this decision is likely to have the least impact on Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, because it’s highly likely that neither of them will be in the race after the results from Iowa are announced. Both of these men, of course, are the past two winners of the Iowa Caucuses on the Republican side and Mike Huckabee has already essentially said that he would drop out of the race if he doesn’t finish in the top three in Iowa. Santorum has been asked in media appearances what his future plans are if he doesn’t finish well in Iowa and he’s been non-committal, but one has to imagine that he’d probably follow Huckabee out of the race given that a loss in Iowa just four years after pulling off a surprise win there would be the end to any credible argument for his campaign. Currently, both men are polling at one percent or less in Iowa, so it’s highly unlikely that either of them will finish anywhere near the top three in the Hawkeye State after the dust settles Monday night. As for Fiorina and Paul, they are presently polling under four percent in Iowa in fifth and tenth place respectively, so it’s unlikely that either one of them will get into the top three in the Hawkeye State, although I suppose there’s a slim but incredibly unlikely chance that he could do much better than expected and finish in third in Iowa. If that doesn’t happen, though, Nationally, meanwhile Paul is in eighth place and Fiorina is in tenth place, while the two place eighth and ninth in the New Hampshire. Absent some kind of miracle, then, they would clearly not qualify for the ABC debate. Also excluded from the ABC debate would be former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who is still in the race but has been excluded even from the undercard debates for most of the cycle. Gilmore managed to snag an invitation to tonight’s undercard debate due to getting one percent in at least one recent poll.

Jazz Shaw is skeptical of the idea of so drastically cutting down the number of people on the debate stage after the results of only one contest, especially one as arguably unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. This is a fair point, but at the same time we’re at the point in the race for the nomination where it’s time to be just a bit blunt to this crowd of candidates on the Republican side:

Guys (and Mrs. Fiorina):

We’ve humored many of you for months now by pretending that you are credible candidates for the Republican nomination for President. Because the field is so large, the networks took the unusual step of scheduling two debates on the same day to allow people lower down in the polls to get more exposure than they might otherwise get on a crowded debate stage. With rare exception, specifically Carly Fiorina early in the race and Chris Christie and Rand Paul who bounced back to the main stage after been relegated to the Kids Table for one debate, none of you have made enough of an impression on the public to garner the kind of support that would get you on the main stage. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s never going to happen. Furthermore, if you aren’t actually somewhere in the top six nationally or in New Hampshire then you aren’t going to have any appreciable impact on the race going forward. It’s time for you to go write your book now, or in the case of Senator Paul to concentrate on getting re-elected to the Senate.

I said all the way back in the November that the best way to improve the debates on the GOP side in terms of the ability of reporters to force candidates to provide more substantive answers to question is to reduce the number of candidates. ABC News seems to be taking that advice and, hopefully, so will the planners of the subsequent debates.

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. gVOR08 says:

    Do I have this straight? The top six in national polls OR New Hampshire polls. So a minimum of six and probably one or two more. Plus the top three in IA, if they aren’t already in by polling. So a minimum of six and possibly eight or nine. That’s some ferocious winnowing process;-) Anything that might eliminate Paul, Santorum, Fiorina, and Huckabee can’t be all bad. Fiorina and Paul are, at best, running for Veep. Santorum’s in because he can still get money from Foster Friess, and Huckabee is keeping his grift alive. Who’ll miss any of them?

  2. Given how the numbers work out right now, the three part criteria wouldn’t change much of anything because:

    1 — The people most likely to finish in the top three in Iowa — Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, are also the top three nationally;
    2. — According to RCP, the next three in the national top six are Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Bush, and Christie, and
    3 — The only person in the top six in New Hampshire who doesn’t get in via 1 or 2 above is Kasich.

    So, at most, we’re looking at seven people on the stage, possibly only six depending on how the New Hampshire polls go over the next week.

  3. Just Me says:

    About time-I think any debate after November should have made the main debate the top 6 and put everyone else at the undercard. 8-10 or 11 people is just too many for a debate to allow for any real debating. 10 or 11 candidates just results in a night of sound bites and very little in depth exchange.

    I would actually be fine if they culled it to 4.

    I think the undercard debate is now a bit of a waste as well.