Ending the Presidential-Debate Duopoly

Including a third-party candidate would reinvigorate American democracy.

CPD co-chairs Mike McCurry and Frank Fahrenkopf show off a T-shirt reading "We've Never Heard You Either" before the start of the final 2012 presidential debate  (Jason Reed / Reuters )
The Democratic and Republican parties—which cannot seem to agree on anything else these days—have conspired to construct and defend a duopoly that closes competition to all other political alternatives. As a result, every current state governor and every one of the 535 members of Congress (save Maine Senator Angus King and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) was elected on one of the two party tickets. Governance in Washington is increasingly deadlocked between two parties that are being dragged to the extremes, while new alternatives that might fashion creative policy options and broader governing coalitions are stifled from competing. The political parties have become rigid and resistant to change, and have lost their capacity to find necessary and imaginative solutions to major problems.
Is it any wonder, then, that the polls show unprecedented disaffection among the American public? 62 percent of Americans do not think the federal government has the consent of the governed, and 86 percent feel the political system is broken and does not serve the interests of the American people.
In The Economist’s 2013 democracy index, the U.S. is looking mediocre by international standards. It ranks only 19th in the quality of democracy. Americans should care about the quality and openness of their democracy for its own sake.
But there are also strong connections between the adaptability and competitiveness of its political institutions and the outcomes they produce.  Globally, the United States ranks 14th in education, 19th in quality of infrastructure, 26th in child well-being, 26th in life expectancy, 33rd in internet download speeds, and 44th in healthcare efficiency, but first in one thing—the rate of incarceration.
Nowhere is openness, innovation, and competition more sorely needed than in presidential politics. If competition is good for the economy, why shouldn’t it be good for the political system as well?  If economic markets thrive when there are low barriers to entry, why shouldn’t the political marketplace—democracy—benefit from the same principle?        
Two-thirds of Americans say they wish they had the option to vote for an independent candidate for president. But any alternative to the 162-year-old duopoly of Democrats and Republicans is blocked by the system the two parties have created. Leave aside the huge hurdles of organization and funding that independents must scale to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot across the states. Even more formidable is the obstacle imposed by a crucial but little known and unaccountable gatekeeper, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Members of this unelected and unaccountable commission have established a rule that makes it impossible for an independent, nonpartisan, or third-party ticket to gain access to the general-election debates. In the contemporary era, these debates have become such a dominant focus of political attention that no candidate (and particularly not a third one) can become president without participating.
Even if a third-party candidate does not manage to use the debate as a springboard to the Oval Office, his or her presence on the stage might reshape the conversation. With a third-party candidate in the race, both Democrats and Republicans would have a strong incentive to speak to the issues propelling that candidacy.
The CPD requires candidates for president to average over 15 percent in five polls (which they reserve the right to select, and which are open to manipulation) taken in September, just days before the debates. Since 1960 not one American who had not participated in a major-party primary has ever polled over 15 percent less than two weeks before the debates. (Ross Perot was polling in the single digits when he was permitted into the debates under an old rule.) For a candidate who has not run the gauntlet of the two major-party primaries, new research demonstrates that getting to that level of support in the polls by mid-September might require an expenditure of nearly $270 million. No independent campaign has ever spent, or ever will spend, that kind of money without knowing that its presidential and vice-presidential candidates can stand on the stage of the debates in the fall with a fair chance to compete.
In January, 49 prominent Republicans, Democrats, and independents—including current and former governors, members of congress, cabinet members, academics, military leaders, and me—wrote to the CPD, asking it to change the rule and open up the debates to an independent voice. (Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley is also a signatory to the letter.) The letter proposed a different (or at least supplementary) means for earning a third spot on the debate stage: If one or more alternative candidates or parties qualified for the presidential ballot in states with enough electoral votes to win the election, then whichever one gathered the most signatures as part of the ballot-access process would be invited to participate in the debates. It urged that this decision be made by April 30 of the election year, to allow enough time for the candidate to mount a serious national campaign—and to be tested and scrutinized by the media. And it invited the CPD to propose other means by which an alternative ticket could reasonably qualify to enter the debates.
When a Petition for Rulemaking was filed with the FEC and posted for public comment in December, all but one of the 1,252 public comments endorsed the request for a new rule. Only the CPD claimed there was no need for a change.  Despite this overwhelming backing, the CPD has stonewalled. In fact, the 17-member board has refused even to meet with the four-dozen signers of the Change the Rule letter.
For more than two centuries, the United States has been a beacon of hope for democracy worldwide. For the last century, the United States has been the world’s most successful and powerful democracy. But both of these elements of global leadership are now rapidly eroding. Making the election for America’s highest office more open and competitive might renew the vigor and promise of its democracy.