Which Candidates Will Be in the South Carolina GOP Debate?

next GOP debate, GOP debate South Carolina, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush will all be in Saturday’s debate. (Getty)

The GOP debate stage will be at least a little less crowded when the candidates square off Saturday night in South Carolina.

CBS, which is hosting the debate, won’t finalize its list of candidates until Friday afternoon. But it’s likely the debate will feature six candidates — the smallest field yet.

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush have all already qualified for the debate by virtue of their performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. Ben Carson is also likely to qualify based on his standing in the national and South Carolina polls. But none of the other candidates who competed in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary are likely to be in the debate.

Chris Christie, a central figure in last week’s debate in New Hampshire, dropped out of the race Wednesday, a day after finishing sixth place in New Hampshire. Carly Fiorina followed suit later in the day. Jim Gilmore is technically still in the race, but has failed to receive even 1 percent of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire. There’s virtually no chance he’ll qualify for the debate.

Donald Trump Ben Carson
Ted Cruz
Marco Rubio
John Kasich
Jeb Bush

CBS is using a three-pronged set of criteria to qualify for the debate. What follows is a breakdown of which candidates qualify by which criteria.

A top 3 finish in the Iowa caucus:

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio

A top 5 finish in the New Hampshire primary:

Donald Trump, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio

A place among the top 5 candidates in a combination of national and South Carolina polls from January 15 to February 12, while earning at least 3 percent of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire or at least 3 percent of the vote in the South Carolina and national polls:

The second part of this equation — having received at least 3 percent of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire or polling at 3 percent or above — is simple: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Ben Carson all received at least 3 percent of the vote in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, so they all meet the criteria, regardless of whether they hit the 3 percent threshold in the polling averages CBS is considering. (Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie all would have met the criteria as well.)

The first part of the equation — placing in the top 5 in national and South Carolina polls during the period in question — is slightly more complicated, mostly because the polls could change over the next several days. If the cutoff were Wednesday rather than Friday, Carson would almost certainly be in. CBS hasn’t released the list of polls it’s taking into account, but the most recent RealClear Politics national and South Carolina polling averages provide a good proxy.

When it comes to meeting the criteria, Carson is in pretty good shape both nationally and in South Carolina. RCP’s polling average from January 22 to February 4 had him in fourth place, with 7.8 percent of the vote — 3.5 points ahead of Jeb Bush and 3.8 points ahead of John Kasich.

RCP’s average of South Carolina polls from January 15 to January 23 is a bit more kind to Carson. Though he’s in fifth place rather than fourth, he has a further lead over the candidates behind him. John Kasich is tied for seventh place, 6.7 points behind Carson.

The bottom line: The only way Carson won’t qualify is if Kasich passes him in the national and/or South Carolina polling averages. Given that Carson has a pretty big lead in both categories, the only way he’ll miss out is if his own polling numbers tank over the next two days while Kasich’s surge by a big enough margin to pull ahead of Carson.

If Kasich passes Carson for fifth place, Carson won’t be on the stage, leaving it a five-man debate between Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Kasich.

We’ll update this post as more polling information becomes available.