Politics & Policy

End the Debate Cartel

(Photo Illustration: NRO; Mike Blake, Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Most voters want to hear from someone other than Trump and Clinton.

The Libertarian party nominated two respected former governors as their presidential ticket this weekend. But Gary Johnson and Bill Weld have little chance of becoming known to the American people — even though their names are likely to be on all 50 state ballots. Ditto with any candidates the Never Trump or Green party puts up.

That’s because of the great Catch-22 of American politics. Outsider candidates who aren’t well known are seldom included in polls for president, and the privately run Commission on Presidential Debates won’t include candidates beyond the Democratic or Republican nominees in debates unless they draw at least 15 percent of the vote in a slew of surveys. Candidates who win 5 percent of the national vote are eligible for federal funding of their next campaign, but they must demonstrate three times that amount of support to speak to a nationwide debate audience.

That double standard makes even less sense this year than in the past. Doug Schoen has polled for candidates ranging from Bill Clinton to Michael Bloomberg. But he’s never seen the current level of dissatisfaction with the likely nominees of both parties. His new survey finds that 61 percent of voters aren’t satisfied with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. An astonishing 21 percent of all voters surveyed would back a generic independent candidate against them. 

Don’t expect the Commission on Presidential Debates to be sympathetic to the lack of other voices in their nationally televised debates. The Commission, financed largely by corporations and law firms, was set up in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties for the express purpose of seizing control of the debates from the League of Women Voters and making sure the two parties could control their terms. “I think they’re trying to steal the debates from the American voter,” Nancy Neuman, then the league’s president, told reporters at the time.

The League had irritated the two parties by insisting on the presence of independent John Anderson in a 1980 debate and by refusing to knuckle under to the demands of major-party nominees — demands that often ran to a dozen pages or more. In 1984, the Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale campaigns rejected 80 names the League put forward as potential moderators.

The announcement of the Commission’s formation made clear early on what its partisan interests were. Frank Fahrenkopf, who was then chair of the Republican party and who remains co-chair of the Commission to this day, said it was unlikely to include third-party candidates in any debate. His Democratic counterpart back in 1987, Paul Kirk, said at the time that he personally believed all third-party candidates should be excluded. Indeed, the only time the Commission has allowed an outside candidate was in 1992, when Ross Perot was let onto the stage. But the Commission opposed his inclusion, Perot was added only at the insistence of President George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Each of them believed that Perot was overall draining the most votes from the other.

#share#“The game is rigged,” Gary Johnson, told reporters this week at the Libertarian convention that nominated him for president. Even though he won 1.2 million votes as the Libertarian-party candidate in 2012 and served two terms as a GOP governor of New Mexico. “There’s no way I get on that debate stage unless I poll at 15 percent, and polling firms tell me they only ask about Trump and Clinton because I’m not well known.”

Only 34 percent of voters believe that having two parties is enough.

The few times that Johnson has been included, he’s done surprisingly well. He hit 11 percent in a March Monmouth University survey, 10 percent in a recent Fox News poll, and 10 percent in a Morning Consult poll.

Challenges to the Commission’s authority have been routinely launched over the years but have been unsuccessful. A federal lawsuit launched by Johnson in 2012 was dismissed on technical grounds. A lawsuit by Jill Stein, the Green-party candidate, was filed that same year and also failed.

In a 1992 case, the Supreme Court declined to recognize any obligation of even public TV stations to include non-major-party candidates in debates. But it did note that presidential debates are “the only occasion during a campaign when the attention of when the attention of a large portion of the American public is focused on the election.”

#related#This year, the dissatisfaction with the nation’s two-party system is greater than ever, even as debate audiences were bigger than ever. A USA Today/Suffolk University survey from February found that only 34 percent of voters believe that having two parties is enough. A full 53 percent said there should be three or more viable parties or more. 

But the choices the American people will have in national debates are likely to remain as limited as ever — unless a campaign of public pressure and shame is mounted to demand that the Commission reexamine its arbitrary rules. Its refusal to do so will only validate the anger of the American people against the establishment that has fueled the rise of candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

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