In an Unusual Election Year, Should Third Parties Be Allowed To Debate?

The first contest is weeks away, and Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are still pushing to be included.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

After sponsoring presidential debates for several cycles in the late 1970s and 1980s, the League of Women Voters quit—with harsh words for a new organization, established by the two major parties, that had worked to minimize its role.

League president Nancy Neuman accused the Commission on Presidential Debates of carefully choreographing an upcoming debate behind the League’s back, thus minimizing political risk for the candidates and creating a dishonest experience for viewers.

“We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public,” Neuman said at a 1988 press conference.

Nearly 30 years and some half-dozen election cycles have since passed. But U.S. third parties say the commission is still hoodwinking voters. Hampered by the group’s debate-qualifying criteria, third-party candidates have difficulty making the stage, and they accuse the commission of purposefully keeping them out to protect the two major parties. A third-party candidate hasn’t been included since 1992, and at the first general-election debate of 2016, chances are the most viable third-party candidates, the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson, won’t be there either.

Arguably, this exclusion makes sense: Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is most likely to become president. But third parties and their sympathizers have been arguing for years that this shut-out is deeply unfair. And in 2016, their points resonate more than usual. Past cycles have seen the major parties dutifully fall in line behind their nominees. This year, the GOP isn’t thrilled with its own standard-bearer, with party unity still an unattainable goal. Both Clinton and Trump, too, remain unpopular among the electorate at large.

When voters head to the polls in November, most will see Johnson’s and Stein’s names listed on their ballots. They can’t—and shouldn’t have to—hear from every candidate running for president; hundreds of varying degrees of seriousness have filed this cycle. But when an election creates exceptions to every campaign rule, it may be worth reviewing whether debates should have exceptions, too.

An appearance at one of the 90-minute debates would be monumental for these candidates. It would represent “perhaps the first and only time that third parties or Independents [would] really have a national stage,” George Washington University political scientist John Sides told me in an email. Third parties don’t get nearly as much attention as their major-party counterparts—a significant barrier to informing the American people about their personalities and policies. The lack of attention also makes it difficult for them to qualify for debates under commission rules. Those criteria are rigid, but entirely manufactured: They were formalized in 2000 after the group had used a more ad-hoc—its detractors called it “arbitrary”—selection process in previous cycles.

This year, Johnson and Stein have fulfilled one major criterion: They both are on the ballot in enough states to hypothetically win the electoral college. But neither has met the 15 percent polling average mandated by the commission. FiveThirtyEight reports that among the polling organizations the commission will use to determine eligibility, Stein is currently averaging 4.5 percent, with Johnson at 10 percent. Commissioners will calculate their polling averages in mid-September, giving Johnson and Stein precious few weeks to improve their standing.

As to its political affiliation, the commission insists that it is nonpartisan, and that its rules ensure that all participating candidates “have a realistic chance of being elected.” Its opponents nevertheless point to the body’s leaders as a sign of its political leanings: The commission’s current heads include a former Republican National Committee chairman and a former Clinton administration press secretary. The commission also hasn’t been consistent in the way it talks about third parties. In January, Frank Fahrenkopf, the current co-chair who previously served in the RNC, called the notion of a third-party appearance “great.” But back when the commission was founded in 1987, he suggested it “was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates,” The New York Times wrote.

If there are self-serving Republicans and Democrats on the commission—as third parties have long alleged—they must be partial to their parties’ nominees, as there’s little sign the commission will change its criteria in favor of third parties as the first debate draws closer. Top commissioners have suggested they might reexamine candidates who poll within surveys’ margins of error, but Fahrenkopf told CNBC “right now that person would not be included.” And there shouldn’t be an exception to criteria even in a divisive election year, said Chris Carson, the current League of Women Voters president, in a recent interview. I asked her about her view  on the qualifying rules, given her organization’s once-hostile words toward the commission. She pointed me to federal regulations that dictate, albeit vaguely, that debate organizers “must use pre-established objective criteria” to choose participants. She wouldn’t say definitively that a 15 percent cutoff is what her organization would mandate if it were still in charge, but pressed the importance of sticking to “really clear” criteria to reasonably limit candidate numbers. The commission, which did not respond to repeated interview requests, notes on its website that the League used a 15 percent metric in 1980. (Atlantic Media’s chairman, David G. Bradley, is among those who have called for opening the debates to broader participation.)

Perhaps no amount of justification, though, will stop third parties from questioning the debates’ integrity. And despite Carson’s commitment to criteria adherence, they may have a point: The commission released its rules for debates in October 2015, well before the first primary contest. In the ensuing months, Trump has remade the GOP, dooming pre-primary favorites like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Senator Bernie Sanders’ backers were legion, and cut into Clinton’s support. In a norm-defying election year, perhaps the normal 15 percent threshold doesn’t work.

With the first debate looming, Johnson and Stein are essentially running two campaigns apiece. One is traditional, focused on drawing contrasts with other candidates and uniting voters around their ideals. The other is to simply get on the debate stage, improving their poll numbers by increasing awareness of their candidacies, and applying public pressure to the commission. “We’re hoping that the commission will do whatever is fair and just that would benefit the American electorate,” Johnson’s campaign manager, Ron Nielson, told me. “We believe that allowing voices that others want to hear onto that debate stage is important and it certainly should be part of their goal in producing the debates.” (The Stein team did not respond to requests for comment.)

Both candidates have made the major-party nominees’ unpopularity part of their pitch to voters. Stein, whose party is to the left of the Democrats, is courting Clinton detractors and unhappy former Sanders supporters, including those who’ve taken up with Trump, she’s said. The Johnson campaign thinks it, too, can appeal to both parties—though the candidate has reserved his toughest words for the GOP, perhaps in a play to Never Trump voters similarly upset with their party. Johnson himself used to be a member of the Republican Party; he was elected to two terms as the GOP governor of New Mexico. The candidates have also made Clinton and Trump central to their pitch to debate.

“Knowing that the majority of Americans [are] unhappy with these two party choices, this is the time for us to open up,” Stein recently told PBS. “Americans have not only a right to vote, but a right to know who we can vote for.” The Johnson campaign, meanwhile, asks voters to “imagine a voice of reason in a debate that would otherwise be consumed with negativity and name calling.”

Typically, third-party complaints about the debates wouldn’t reach beyond the parties’ voters. But this year, they’ve found new audiences, with their gripes aired at CNN town halls, including one for the Green Party and two for the Libertarians; during late-night talk-show appearances for Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld; and with some in the print media taking up their cause.  In an editorial this month, the Los Angeles Times wrote that voters must be given a chance to hear “alternative ideas” at the upcoming debates. The Charlotte Observer put it more pointedly, with a reference to Trump’s now-infamous allegation that the election could be stolen. “While the presidential election isn’t rigged (despite what some Republicans might want you to believe), the debates sure seem to be.” Voters, in particular, have responded to the Johnson campaign: He’s polling better now than he did as a presidential candidate in 2012, and more than a million people tuned into the second Libertarian town hall.

The Trump and Clinton campaigns haven’t had much to say about Johnson and Stein. Neither campaign responded to requests for comment about those candidates’ hypothetical involvement in debates. Open-debate advocates probably shouldn’t expect any displays of support, either, as neither campaign would want to risk defection if third-party opponents perform well.

Still, third parties have a few more weeks to make their case. If calls for them to participate grow louder, perhaps future cycles, if not this one, will see third parties included. Johnson and Stein can also take comfort knowing at least one major player once supported their cause: Trump, who criticized the commission’s 15 percent rule while weighing a Reform Party run in 2000. “It's disgraceful. It's amazing that they can get away with it,” Trump told reporters at a press conference before the primaries in 2000.

Third parties can, at the very least, dream of mercurial Trump changing his mind once again. “If the right person was debating against whoever the winner of that group is, they'd have a major impact on the election,” he said, referring to the Republican field. “Because that was not a very inspiring group of people that I was watching last night.”