Why we need more than two candidates at presidential debates

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Vin Weber: If the only two candidates on the debate stage are Clinton and Trump, a lot of Americans will be wondering why they can’t have other choices.

In a forum at the University of Minnesota Monday, Stanford professor Larry Diamond and Republican heavyweight Vin Weber made a strong, interesting case for changes to the rules for presidential debates that would make it easier, and perhaps automatic, to expand the cast to at least three candidates in the fall debates.

The current Republican-Democratic duopoly is “embarrassingly undemocratic,” Diamond said, and the fact that the commission that runs the debates is dominated by representatives of the two parties, who have no real interest in expanding the choices presented to the public, “doesn’t pass the smell test” and is “not defensible.”

More voters now identify themselves as independents than as Democrats or Republicans, Weber said. If the two current frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are the major-party nominees, the debate between them would feature two candidates who have higher unfavorable than favorable ratings, he noted. If the only two candidates on the debate stage are Clinton and Trump, a lot of Americans will be wondering why they can’t have other choices, he said.

To be clear, we’re talking about the general-election debates that occur in the fall, not the primary-season debates that, especially on the Republican side this cycle, have been confusing mob scenes.

But the general-election debates, which started with Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, then disappeared until 1976, have only once featured a candidate other than the Republican and Democratic nominee. That was Ross Perot during the 1992 cycle.

Current rules

The current practice of the commission that runs the debates has been to allow in a third candidate who has polled at 15 percent or better in five recent polls in the period just before the debates. Diamond noted that the choice of the five polls is up to the commissioners, whose motives he doesn’t trust. Diamond also mentioned that the 15 percent rule hadn’t been adopted in 1992, and if it had, Perot would not have qualified to be in the debate.

Professor Larry Diamond
Professor Larry Diamond

Weber didn’t express a firm position on how to expand the cast. The forum’s moderator, Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Government at the University’s Humphrey School, suggested in the form of a question that just lowering the poll threshold to under 15 percent might be the simplest way to expand the debate cast.  

Diamond was much more hawkish, if that’s the metaphorical bird I want in this context. Other than a billionaire self-financing candidate (like Perot), a candidate can’t raise the necessary funds to compete unless the public believes he or she has a chance to win the presidency, Diamond said. And the public won’t believe that unless the voters believe the candidate will be allowed on the debate stage. The circular logic means that a candidate can’t get on the debate stage unless the candidate polls above 15 percent, but the candidate can’t poll above 15 percent unless the public believes the candidate has a chance to win, and the public doesn’t believe that anyone who isn’t on the debate stage has a chance to win (and neither does Diamond).

The only way to break the cycle, Diamond argued, is to guarantee that a third candidate from outside the two major parties will be included in the debates. How to anoint such a candidate from among the minor parties or independent candidacies? Diamond expressed ideas, which I assume need more fleshing out, to organize a nationwide, online caucus to choose the third debater.

Weber on Trump

By the way, Weber — who is a substantial figure in the national Republican establishment — may have made a little news in the Trump-against-the-Republican-Establishment saga. Just last week, MinnPost Washington Correspondent Sam Brodey rounded up views of prominent Republicans about whether they would support Trump if he wins the nomination. Weber told Brodey: “I’m not trying to hedge, I genuinely mean the answer [to the question of whether he’d support Trump if nominee] is, I don’t know. It’d be very difficult to vote for someone who believes what he believes and says what he says.”

Vin Weber
Vin Weber

On Monday, sending a clearer signal, Weber said: “I don’t know how I can vote for Donald Trump.” He also said: “As a Republican, every morning I think about every morning how we can not have Donald Trump as our nominee.” He gave a noncommittal endorsement to Ohio Gov. John Kasich as perhaps his favorite of the Republican candidates remaining in the field. Weber previously supported Jeb Bush.

Weber also pushed back against the term “brokered convention” to describe what will happen if Trump comes into the convention with the most delegates but not a majority. If that happens, he said, the rules and the agreed-upon process provide for the delegates to continue balloting until someone gets a majority. And he suggested that, in such a scenario, if Trump doesn’t win the nomination, that would not be any kind of backroom, corrupt outcome as is connoted by the term “brokered convention.”

And, he added, if that does happen, and if Trump decides to launch an independent candidacy, that likely means that Clinton will become president. But, he added, it might help the Republicans hang onto their majorities in Congress because people who came out to vote for Trump and those who voted for the non-Trump Republican nominee would probably vote for Republican nominees for the U.S. House and Senate.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/08/2016 - 10:43 am.

    Whether it is Trump/Clinton or Cruz/Clinton, there will be a lot of nose-holding going on in the polling booth.

    As for arbitrarily inserting a third candidate into a debate, there is very little rationale for choosing which 3rd party candidate to vault into stardom (and possibly swinging the election one way or the other). There is a lot of mischief that could be made with the process of selecting the third wheel.

    At this point, though, what could be improved is the role of the debate moderators.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/08/2016 - 11:52 am.

      Why Just One Other Party?

      There should be about half a dozen debates in the general election season. Why would it have to feature the same 3rd party for all of them? It would be easy to have a Libertarian, a Green, etc, featuring a different one for each debate. I think this would really keep the major party candidates off balance, since there are many areas where the major parties agree. Perot was the only one on stage in 1992 who opposed NAFTA. Trump & HRC both favor more free trade agreements.

      More debates would allow for more in depth discussions of the issues, rather than just one or two for domestic issues and one for foreign issues.

      There is no reason to assume only one 3rd party candidate should be invited.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/08/2016 - 01:39 pm.

        First, I don’t think that inviting a party in that has actual vote percentages in the low single percentage points will make that minor party’s candidate a major contender in an election.

        Rather, their only role then is as a spoiler for the chance of one or the other major parties.

        Fairness would then dictate a determination of how much of a spoiler the first 3rd person would be to which party, and then try to have an equal 3rd person spoiler for the other major candidate for the next debate.

        Now try to figure that one out. And try to do it without lawsuits.

        Even worse would be a 3rd person who remained the same for all debates.

        There ARE advantages to a parliamentary system.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/08/2016 - 02:48 pm.

          I Doubt

          That a Libertarian in a debate would get near enough votes to influence the outcome of the election. What it would do is introduce ideas and proposals that are not now part of the discussion. Currently, the political debate in this country ranges from the radical right all the to center-right. For Pete’s sake some people think Obama is a socialist, rather than the corporate friendly politician he is.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/08/2016 - 05:46 pm.

            Yes, But

            You are assuming that people are listening to the debates for an exchange of ideas. As they are now constituted, they are just elaborately staged shouting matches that confirm the biases of the viewers.

            I will continue to blame the electorate. Who would sit through a Lincoln-Douglas exchange anymore (“Can you just put it on Power Point?”)? Elections have deteriorated into cheap entertainment furnished at great expense.

            A few years back, I saw TV coverage of a St. Paul mayoral debate (“moderated” by Barbara Carlson). Two candidates got into a heated exchange, and actually jumped out of their chairs to confront each other. Far from being disgusted at this kind of foolery, the audience was delighted, bouncing up and down in their seats, looking like this was the most fun they had had in years. That is what the people want.

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/08/2016 - 06:19 pm.

            And how close was Bush v. Gore ?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/08/2016 - 06:58 pm.

        Let’s take this to its logical conclusion

        and transform our system into a parliamentary one, like most other democracies.
        Then we’d have multiple parties (most of the minor) with many different agenda, with governing coalitions built by horsetrading competing interests.
        Might be an improvement; might not.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 03/08/2016 - 11:18 am.

    Republican hand wringers

    With every new statement from the Republican establishment that attempts to tactfully and/or cryptically tell us that the Donald is just not fit to be President I am reminded that these exact same people were telling us that in 2008 Sarah Palin was.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/08/2016 - 11:29 am.


    The solutions set out seem to involve adding more “process” to an already lengthy, expensive, and convoluted system.

    If the debates are bad, it’s because the candidates and the parties are bad. Adding someone else to the mix isn’t going to do anything except add another voice clamoring to be heard (as well as encouraging those who have not been heard to cry foul because they were excluded). Candidates and parties are bad because the voters are not demanding more. If we are being fed platitudes and theatrics, it must be because we are content with that.

    Americans have been encouraged to feel a detachment from government–that government is some mysterious “other” that has an existence independent of any popular will. Fixing the debates just for the sake of having “better” debates is not going to get at the root of the problem.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/14/2016 - 10:09 am.

      Political Promotion Plan Amiss

      Maybe, just maybe, the overall scheme has been working too well for the Corporate Red and Blue: engage us, then enchant us, then enrage us, then disinterest us. That leaves both parties with their generally dependable numb and faithful, following one another in the voter lines.

      Too cynical? Don’t really think so, anymore. This season seems to exhibit the factor most feared–the anomaly of re-engagement by all those carefully culled independent thinkers.

      The DNC and RNC seem in crisis, as far as “business as usual” management practices, at least. I’m quite surprised much more money has not come to propel Bernie Sanders far further than he has risen to date. So far, Trump has been the gift to HRC that keeps on giving, allowing that team to use him in distracting Blue core components from Sanders’ legitimate challenge. Perhaps Bernie’s campaign is, of all things, a tad too conventional. .

      After this back alley fight of 2016, given the ever-increasing instability of most international issues, 2020 may produce electoral turmoil here of somewhat revolutionary magnitude.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/08/2016 - 11:44 am.

    The last time we had a third presidential candidate messing up the electoral works, it was Ralph Nader. He was essential in denying the presidency to Al Gore in 2000 by attracting way too many relatively unthinking “anyone but the two major parties” types who otherwise were liberals.

    I am very suspicious of two Republicans getting up on a stage–knowing that sane Americans will vote for Clinton over Trump or Cruz or Rubio–advocating that there be a third “somebody,” “anybody” to oppose Clinton or Sanders in 2016. (The Stanford guy leans right.)

    What’s wrong with just having a staunch progressive Democrat oppose in debate a staunch anti-government Conservative? Or a strong Democrat opposing Trump, who is a . . . um .. whatever ?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/08/2016 - 02:44 pm.


      Al Gore lost because he could not win his home state and he let Bush steal Florida. He did nothing to counter James Baker’s narrative (“The votes have been counted and re-counted, and Bush won”, despite the votes not having been counted even once by that point), so the Bush narrative took hold.

      More Democrats voted for Bush than voted for Nader. I can tell you my Nader vote would not have gone to Gore, another free trade corporate Democrat who was too cozy with Wall Street.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/08/2016 - 12:17 pm.

    what seems undemocratic to me…

    …is some arbitrary judge deciding that first we need a third debater and second deciding who that should be or what method is used to choose them. You have two major party candidates that will garner 80-90% of the vote. The independents are free to choose between them. Why create a third candidate that you think represents the independents. If the guy didn’t get this far on his own why give him a push? There is also the danger that whoever you arbitrarily choose will, depending on who he is closest to, pull votes from one of the two major party people causing a possible situation where the choice that may have been favored by the majority will lose because his/her votes were pulled away by this artificial candidacy.

    At this point in this election cycle it isn’t clear that there may not be a third candidate anyway. If the Republicans succeed in preventing Trump from getting their nomination, I would think there is a good chance he would run an independent campaign. Maybe he will resurrect the Know Nothings.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/08/2016 - 01:58 pm.

    My thanks…

    … to Mr. Blaise and RB Holbrook.

    I don’t accept the premise of the speakers in the article, though I’m not wedded to a particular political party, and am not opposed to having more than two people involved in a general election debate per se.

    Blaise’s point is embarrassingly (for Republicans) well-taken. Mrs. Palin has, on numerous occasions, proven her incapacity for high office since that 2008 campaign.

    Also relevant, I think, is Holbrook’s point. We’ve gotten used to right-wing characterizations of our own government as some sort of foreign power that has to be opposed. If you’re going to argue that government in ANY form is bad, you’re essentially a nihilist that doesn’t merit any further attention. Once we get beyond that question, however, it’s a matter of, if local or state or federal government is bad, why is that so?

    My own totally unscientific and personal view is that democracy requires a degree of engagement and thoughtfulness that a great many of my fellow citizens would prefer to avoid. That’s the appeal of a “strong” (i.e., neofascist) leader like Mr. Trump – or, if you loathe Democrats, apply the same label to Mrs. Clinton. They promise to make all those hard decisions – what to tax, what action to take, or not take, who to appoint, what policy to adopt, etc. – for people who’d rather not have to think about how they’re being governed. It strikes me as more than a little ironic, though perhaps not that great a surprise, that many people who reflexively oppose a “nanny-state” apparently have no problem with a “pappy-state.”

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/08/2016 - 02:09 pm.

    polling 15% is a good number

    Ross gave us Clinton and consequently another Clinton…. ?

    However – the V. P. debate that year was entertaining!

  8. Submitted by Andrew Rockway on 03/09/2016 - 12:00 am.

    Electoral Debates vs. Ideological Debates

    It might be interesting to have more frequent national debates/discussions between public intellectuals (if such people still exist) representing different, non-binary ideological positions. This would at least help expand the “national conversation” on public issues. Our media is ostensibly tasked with stoking this kind of conversation…

    What will asking a third candidate or third party to participate in an electorally-focused debate in a first past the post system accomplish? There’s a reason third parties aren’t successful despite the majority of Americans having unfavorable assessments of the two major parties.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/09/2016 - 08:52 am.

    For those who want some numbers on the winning percentages of popular vote in presidential elections:

    Of the 57 elections listed, 19 had a winning percentage of more than 10% (33% of the time)

    So in 67% of the elections, 10% or less separated the winner from the loser

    Of the 57 elections listed, 16 had a winning percentage of less than 5% (28% of the time)


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