There’s a better way to decide who should be included in the presidential debates

REUTERS/Jim Young
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaking at a campaign rally in Chicago on Sept. 8.

Well, it’s official. The current polling for neither Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson nor Green Party nominee Jill Stein reached the 15 percent support figure needed to include them in the first presidential debate on September 26. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the only debaters in the first round, and probably subsequent rounds, although Johnson issued a plucky statement suggesting that he will keep trying to raise his numbers enough to qualify for the later debates. This is not a surprise, and the poll numbers really weren’t close.

And, assuming it means that the next president will likely be either the Dem or the Repub nominee, that’s not much of a surprise either. The last time we have a president not from that duopoly was Whig nominee Zachary Taylor in 1848. (And the Republicans sorta took over the Whig’s spot in 1856, so it’s really not too much more than a name change. The first Republican president, Abe Lincoln, had been a lifelong Whig.)

I’m not a huge fan of the rigid duopoly system, although I know it’s unlikely to change any time soon. And, since the commission that runs the debates is now dominated by members of the two parties, there’s at the very least a perception problem that the system is rigged to keep third parties out. (It should be noted that independent candidate Ross Perot got into the 1992 debates, which was after the commission had been put in charge. But the 15 percent polling rule had not been adopted yet, and Perot would not have been in the debates if that rule had been in place.)

I do believe our system is rigged heavily in favor of the two parties. Some of that rigging is based in the Constitution, although the framers had absolutely no such thought or duopolistic intent when they designed the original system. Other more recent developments reinforce the duopoly, and the presidential debate wrinkle is one of them.

Critics of the current system suggest a Catch-22 is in place. It’s very hard for an independent or third party candidate to get to 15 percent in the polls without the exposure of being in one of the debates. In a talk at the Humphrey School in March, political scientist Larry Diamond, who has been working on this issue, advocates guaranteeing a spot for a third candidate, using a nationwide online caucus to determine who that candidate should be.

I can’t quite picture that, but I have a simpler, fairly obvious suggestion if the commission is motivated to encourage more voices: Set a lower threshold of support for the first debate, say five percent. Then raise it for the second and raise it again for the third (the numbers 10 and 15 percent obviously suggest themselves).

That would at least undermine the Catch-22. It’s common to have third-party candidates at or above five percent, but rare to have them above 15. If someone gets into the first debate with five percent of support, he or she has a fair shot to convince more people to support him. If he or she can’t use the exposure during that first debate to get to 10, they can’t complain quite so convincingly that the system made it impossible to get a fair hearing.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/17/2016 - 10:06 am.

    And the advantages of having a late-entry fringe candidate or two at the presidential debates are. . . . what? We already have two starkly diffferent candidates, one of whom (Trump) presents a clear danger to America because of his character and temperament and lack of knowledge. Plus his propensity to lie.

    We’re at decision time, and the stakes are very high. Some of us think that what Nader’s campaign did to elect George W. Bush in 2000 is far more serious than Hillary Clinton’s 2003 Senate vote (with most other Senators at the time) to permit the president to take some action in Iraq.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/18/2016 - 11:31 am.

      Perhaps the Issue for Some on the Fringes:

      Clear and Present Danger vs. Clear and Perpetual Danger. What if Bernie Sanders had clarified his true philosophical affiliation after Democrat primaries by remaining in the race under a more credible label? Many readers likely would have expected him to be in these final “debates.” Maybe the threshold of 15% is no longer valid for many citizens.

      When does the aging Left become so singular-minded it may easily discard a representative of its “Green” years, for example? No wonder young potential voters appear to be looking for a better message.

      The irony here, perhaps, is that Republican primary voters faced their own beasts (17?) and chose one from a new zoo, apparently. No one can accuse the RNC of dressing their stage; however, the DNC certainly did just that with one cardboard lobby card and one old guy from the political archives (who drew many of these same young people to the process, by the way). Why would Sanders or Stein really not be welcome here? More than most prior years, the under-vote is the true demon of both Blue and Red nightmares, it seems. I perceive the DNC establishment now becoming more than a little nervous about November, without panic but certainly with some gastric distress of late. Whatever the outcome this year, it certainly will be determined at somewhat new margins.

      [I’m thinking now of going Green, just to finally exercise (exorcise?) those youthful dispositions. I did vote for Nader twice–once by write-in.]

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/17/2016 - 10:45 am.

    Nope

    Good god, if you can’t hit 15 percent less than two months before the election, you have no chance of becoming president. More people through lower thresholds is just a distraction.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/18/2016 - 08:40 am.

    Sorry not interested

    Even with this election of two unfavorable candidates the addition of one or two third party candidates, who positions aren’t liked either based on their poll numbers, wouldn’t solve anything. They have to do more than whine about not getting into the debates, they have to be feasible. Hold your nose and vote.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 09/19/2016 - 05:59 pm.

    Debates aren’t the problem

    Johnson and Stein have been running for a while now so something other than the debates must be holding their numbers low. Just as a wild idea, allow any party into the debates if they have at least one member of the House or Senate or a Governor. This would encourage third parties to try to build an actual party and show the public they are can actually win an election.

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