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The wild gimmicks Republicans are trying to get on the debate stage

It’s everything from gift cards to a sweepstakes for Messi soccer tickets.

Campaign literature for Republican presidential candidate North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum sits on a table while he speaks during a campaign stop on June 9, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In a bid to get on the debate stage this August, Republican presidential candidates are being nothing if not creative. The range of tactics employed underscores how vital it is for candidates to get into the debate in order to make an impression in a crowded field — and just how much former President Donald Trump continues to loom over the contest.

Already, six candidates say they’ve hit some of the criteria needed to qualify. The requirements include having 40,000 unique donors total, as well as 200 unique donors each in at least 20 states to demonstrate grassroots support. Additionally, candidates need to either hit 1 percent in three national polls, or 1 percent in two national polls and 1 percent in two state polls from early states selected by the RNC.

The candidates who’ve cleared some of these hurdles include former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Those who haven’t yet met the necessary donor number, however, are resorting to more unorthodox tactics in order to hit it.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, for example, is giving out $20 Visa and Mastercard gift cards that he’s branded “Biden economic relief” cards to supporters in exchange for $1 donations. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez offered supporters the chance to join a raffle for Inter Miami tickets to see soccer star Lionel Messi’s first game if they donated $1. And a super PAC supporting Suarez — the SOS America PAC — is offering the chance to win one year of free college tuition if people donate $1 to his campaign.

Michigan businessman Perry Johnson has offered T-shirts emblazoned with a message backing former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for a $1 donation. And although Ramaswamy has already reached the donor threshold needed for the debate, he’s trying to incentivize more donations by offering supporters a payout of 10 percent of grassroots funds they bring in.

Other notable candidates who haven’t yet reached the donor figure to qualify include several notable Trump critics like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd.

Candidates’ desperation to get on the debate stage is indicative of how important an appearance at the August 23 event could be for jump-starting their campaigns. Currently, Trump maintains a steady polling lead among GOP candidates, at 50.4 percent in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, followed by DeSantis at 21.5 percent and most other candidates trailing in the single digits. Having a memorable appearance at the debate, potentially one that includes a viral confrontation of Trump, may be some candidates’ only hope of making their campaigns more viable.

“Getting on the debate stage is street cred,” Republican strategist Chip Felkel tells Vox. “The lesser known candidates have to pull out all the stops ... gift cards, airplane banners, who knows, to at least give the appearance of viability.”

For many candidates, the debate is a chance to cut into Trump’s lead

The desperation to get on the debate stage is reflective of the state of the campaign. Since he launched his run, Trump has been the dominant player, sucking up media attention, support in the polls, and money. His only real rival has been DeSantis, who led the pack in fundraising for the second quarter, bringing in $20.1 million, while Trump secured $17.7 million.

Other Republican candidates were far behind, with Scott raising $5.9 million, Haley raising $5.3 million, Christie bringing in $1.7 million, and Pence $1.2 million. Some candidates, like Burgum, also saw high numbers, though much of it was self-funded.

Many of the candidates aren’t well known outside of their home states — neither Suarez or Burgum has cracked 1 percent in national polls, for instance. Essentially, few campaigns seem to be real challenges to Trump at the moment, and the debate stage is a critical chance to try to turn things around.

“For many, they see the debate as the best way to generate interest and enthusiasm in their campaigns,” says George Washington University politics professor Todd Belt. “This translates into more media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteers. All of these are necessary to wage a successful presidential nomination campaign — even more so with such a strong frontrunner in the field.”

The gimmicks that some Republicans have used to get donors in the door suggest that they don’t have sufficient organic support for their campaigns just yet. Whether these schemes are legal remains an open question. Certain efforts, including Burgum’s gift card offer, could potentially run afoul of FEC straw donor rules, which prohibit someone from paying for another person’s donation. There is some legal gray area, there, however, and even if these unorthodox methods are found to be illegal, as Belt tells Vox, campaign finance violations often result in fines that candidates simply pay later.

Trump has not committed to participating in the debate at this point. For most of the other candidates, as the recent scramble makes clear, it’s a prime opportunity to try to cut into his lead.

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