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.