The Debate Debate

Originally published on The Moderate Voice


The Commission on Presidential Debates finally made official that which has been a relative certainty for the past few months. There were no third party candidates in the first presidential debate on September 26, nor will there be in the vice-presidential debates. It is also extremely doubtful that a third party candidate will be on the stage in the subsequent debates.

The failure to allow third party candidates is a result of the Commission’s rule requiring 15% standings in national polls. Although it is not inconceivable that a third party candidate would meet these requirements, it is extremely unlikely. Even Ross Perot, the most successful third party candidate in recent memory, would probably not have appeared in the 1992 debates.

As a creation of the Republican/Democrat duopoly, the Commission has no interest in allowing a third party candidate to appear in debates, especially in a period of unprecedented dysfunction and polarization and in an election between the two most unpopular candidates in history. If you visit the Commission’s website, you will find a plausible explanation of the rationale for their current standards. But, you won’t find the real rationale – perpetuation of the two party system.

To that end, the Commission’s standards are an extension of the incumbency protection scheme that keeps the significant majority of incumbents in office and often without competition. Whether through campaign finance gimmickry, redistricting magic, ballot access chicanery or voting right misdirection, it’s about perpetuating the duopoly at all costs.

Consider the math. According to the Pew Research Center, since 1992 the range of party identification has changed very little: “Currently, 34% of registered voters identify as independents, 33% identify with the Democratic Party while 29% identify as Republicans.” So, assuming the major parties are successful at holding their bases, the Commission essentially requires a third party candidate to attract almost half of all independents in order to qualify for the debates. Since, as Pew also reports, many independents historically lean toward one of the major parties, don’t look to see a third party candidate on the debate stage in the near future.

Given that independents currently represent the largest block of voters, perhaps they too should automatically earn a seat at the table. There are any number of ways to poll independent voters and the candidate leading that poll has a strong argument to be on the stage. Since the Commission has an Electoral College bent, at a time when the electoral map creates a virtual lock in all but 12-14 states, perhaps the debate qualifying standard should relate solely to the contested states. Neither of these calculations would insure a third party a seat at the debate table, but they would at least have a fighting chance.

If the Commission persists in a litmus test before granting an independent voice, that is also easily solved through polling. Just as the Commission currently aggregates polling data to determine if any of the individual third party candidates should appear in the debates, it can similarly aggregate data as to whether or not the public wants one or more third parties to be added.

Unfortunately, these common sense solutions are not likely to be adopted while the decision is controlled by the Democrats and Republicans.

Because the courts have recently upheld the Commission’s standards in the face of anti-trust arguments, it is doubtful that a third party candidate will be on the debate stage this year. However, the next best thing is for the Libertarians and Greens to at least demand equal time relative to the debates. When candidate Clinton’s bout of pneumonia and candidate Trump’s opinion of President Obama’s birth status gain more attention than all of the third party candidates put together, it’s worth a shot.

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