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The fourth Republican debate may have just three participants

UPDATE (Dec. 5, 2023 at 10:45 a.m.): The Republican National Committee announced Monday evening that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie qualified for Wednesday’s debate. His inclusion is a bit of a surprise, as it was unclear whether he would qualify based on the RNC’s polling requirements.

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The field of Republican candidates battling to be the main alternative to former President Donald Trump has been shrinking. On Wednesday, we'll see the latest sign of that narrowing at the GOP's fourth primary debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Just three contenders look certain to take the stage, down from five at the last debate in early November, while another is right on the edge of making it.

This winnowing is a product of Trump's hefty polling edge, but also the Republican National Committee's increased thresholds for debate qualification. At this point, only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy appear to have the necessary polling support and donor numbers to make Wednesday's stage. The qualifying deadline is this evening, so we can't rule out some last-minute changes, and the RNC has the final say on whether someone has qualified. The main uncertainty lies with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who appears short of qualification but whose campaign is arguing that he should qualify. Meanwhile, Trump once again plans to skip the debate — he hasn't participated in a single one so far.

Only three Republicans may be on stage this Wednesday

Republican presidential candidates by whether they have met the polling, donor and pledge qualifications to participate in the fourth primary debate, as of Dec. 4 at 3 p.m. Eastern

Candidate

Polls

Donors

Pledge

Ron DeSantis

Nikki Haley

Vivek Ramaswamy

Chris Christie

Donald Trump

Asa Hutchinson

Table only includes candidates who have met 538′s "major" candidate criteria. To qualify for the debate, candidates must meet the Republican National Committee's requirements, including: (1) reaching 6 percent in at least two national polls, or 6 percent in one national poll and two polls from the first four states voting in the GOP primary, each from separate states, meeting RNC criteria for survey inclusion; (2) having at least 80,000 unique donors with at least 200 donors in at least 20 states and/or territories; and (3) signing a pledge promising to support the eventual Republican nominee. Polls qualification is based on surveys that appear to meet RNC requirements for inclusion. Information released by campaigns is used to determine whether a candidate has hit the donor threshold, and we assumed that if a campaign reached 80,000 donors, it had also met the requirement for donors by state.

Sources: POLLS, NEWS REPORTS

As it did for the last two debates, the RNC raised the polling and donor thresholds for qualification, which has made it harder for lower-tier candidates to make the stage. This time around, a candidate must have at least 6 percent support in two national polls, or at least 6 percent in one nationwide poll as well as two polls from separate early states, based on polls conducted since Sept. 15 that meet the RNC's criteria for inclusion. Candidates also need at least 80,000 unique donors — up from 70,000 for the third debate — including at least 200 from 20 different states or territories. Additionally, each candidate must sign the RNC's pledge to support the party's eventual nominee. Outside of Trump, every remaining "major" contender based on 538's criteria has done this.

Critically, the RNC increased the polling support threshold from the 4 percent mark it used for the third debate, a change that may stymie Christie's chances. Christie announced in mid-November that he had reached 80,000 donors, but based on 538's analysis of primary polls that appear to meet the RNC's inclusion criteria, he lacks the polls he needs to qualify. Until this past weekend, Christie only had qualifying polls from New Hampshire, where he's exceeded 6 percent in three surveys. On Sunday evening, Trafalgar Group released a national survey that gave Christie 6 percent, which put him closer to qualification — but still a bit short. To make the stage, he would need either one more qualifying national poll, or one qualifying poll from another early state like Iowa or South Carolina.

Now, Christie's campaign has claimed that he does have other national qualifying polls, but those surveys seem to run afoul of the RNC's criteria for inclusion. First, Christie reached 6 percent in a national survey conducted between Sept. 7 and Sept. 18 by YouGov Blue/Liberal Patriot. But the RNC is only accepting surveys "conducted on or after" Sept. 15, so the poll's start date may make it too early for inclusion. Still, the fact the pollster completed the poll after that mid-September date leaves open the possibility that the RNC could give it the green light. The RNC's inclusion of this particular survey was pivotal for the last debate, too, as it provided South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott with his only national qualifying poll (Scott has since dropped out).

The other survey pushed by Christie's team seems less open for debate. Christie attracted 8.5 percent in a national poll from WPA Intelligence/FairVote conducted in late September. However, WPA Intelligence works for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, so the RNC will likely exclude this survey because its criteria bars polls conducted by firms "affiliated with a candidate or candidate committee." Although WPA Intelligence doesn't directly work for DeSantis, the RNC has previously discounted other would-be qualifying polls with super PAC ties.

As for the candidates who have clearly made it, all three easily met the survey and donor requirements. On the polling front, DeSantis and Haley hit the 6 percent mark in all — or nearly all in Haley's case — national and early-state polls that appear to meet the RNC's standards for inclusion. Ramaswamy didn't have trouble this time around either, but he could have issues in the future if his poll standing remains mired in the mid-single digits. For example, if the RNC were to raise the polling threshold to 8 percent for the next debate, Ramaswamy might struggle because he hasn't reached that mark in a qualifying national poll since early October. On the fundraising front, DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy each announced in October that they had at least 100,000 donors after third-quarter fundraising reports came out — comfortably surpassing the 80,000 threshold.

The one other major candidate still active in the race, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, has been nowhere close to getting on stage since the second debate in September — which he failed to qualify for. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was an active candidate until Monday, when he announced the suspension — that is, the end — of his presidential bid. Burgum had enough donors for the third debate, but fell short in qualifying polls.

And while Trump has skipped every debate so far, he has not suffered for it one iota in the polls. Trump is polling at around 60 percent nationally and between 40 and 50 percent in each of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Few non-incumbent candidates have polled at or above 50 percent nationally around this point in the primary calendar, although Trump is the first former president in more than 75 years to run again after leaving office.

In the modern presidential primary era, only three non-incumbents before Trump had clearly polled north of 50 percent nationally by December of the year before voting began: Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic contest, George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primary and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic race. At least in the cases of Gore and Clinton, their dominance helped to shrink the candidate field, and the number of debate participants. Debates around this time in both the 2000 and 2016 Democratic primaries had three or fewer participants, while Bush had five opponents in each of three Republican debates that occurred in December 1999. All three of those candidates went on to win their party's nomination (although Gore had an easier time than Bush or Clinton did).

The dynamics of a race with a clear front-runner make it tougher for those effectively vying for second place to stand out, including in debates. Take Scott's campaign this cycle. After an inconspicuous performance at the third GOP debate on Nov. 8, Scott dropped out on Nov. 12 even though his campaign may have had some money left in the bank and he was attracting at least some support in Iowa.

While Trump's dominance made the path for marginal candidates like Scott and Christie vanishingly narrow quite early in the race, qualification rules may serve as a nail in the coffin. Christie's struggles to qualify for Wednesday's debate demonstrate how the rules can hold a notable candidate back, and Scott might have exemplified that too if he were still running. After all, Scott narrowly met the donor requirement and had the bare minimum national polling to qualify for the third debate.

More broadly, qualification standards have become part of the debate process in recent years as the RNC and its Democratic counterpart have asserted more control over these events, thereby reducing the sway of the media organizations hosting the debates in deciding which candidates get to participate. As we saw four years ago with Democrats and this cycle with Republicans, this has included more thoroughly spelled-out polling and donor requirements, which can provide additional winnowing pressure on the candidate field.

Still, the candidates who actually qualify may be grateful for increasingly strict rules reducing the number of debate participants. Although the debates haven't seismically moved the polls this cycle, a less crowded stage could provide an opportunity for the qualifying candidates to garner more notice. It won't be easy, but in the race to become Trump's chief primary rival, these contenders will have to make these intensely covered events count.

The fourth Republican debate may have just three participants originally appeared on abcnews.go.com