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

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be the only debaters in the first presidential debate — and probably the subsequent ones.  

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

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.

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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.