We are now less than a month from the first presidential debate, but several questions remain to be decided. Will Donald Trump show up? Who will be the moderator? And, perhaps most important, will there be three podiums on the stage or just two?
Given that 57 percent of voters say they feel dissatisfied with a choice between Clinton and Trump, one might think that debate organizers would be eager to include a credible third‐party candidate in the mix. A former two‐term governor who will likely be on the ballot in all 50 states and is running in double digits in many polls would fit that criteria. But unless something changes over the next few weeks, it seems likely that the candidate who fits that description will not be invited.
>The Commission on Presidential Debates, a completely private organization that has somehow seized control over presidential debates, has established criteria that make it very, very difficult for any third party candidate to slip in. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since the commission is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton’s press secretary, and is largely composed of defenders of the status quo.
The current rules say that in order to make the debate a candidate must, among other criteria, average at least 15 percent in five national polls: ABC–Washington Post; CBS–New York Times; CNN–Opinion Research Corporation; Fox News; and NBC–Wall Street Journal. That’s a pretty high bar that doesn’t accurately reflect the influence a candidate might be having on the ground from state to state. And, in practice, it’s an even higher bar than it looks. Given margins of error, and the fact that just one bad poll among the five can bring down the average, even candidates with substantial support may not meet the arbitrary cutoff. Moreover, many polls ask about third‐party candidates only after asking about a binary, Clinton‐versus‐Trump choice. That can subtly reduce third‐party support, and when every percentage point counts, that’s important.
Currently, the only third‐party candidate with a chance to qualify is the Libertarian nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Johnson currently averages 10 percent in the five designated polls, though he is running above 15 percent in a number of states, including Colorado and New Mexico. He appears to be taking votes about equally from both Clinton and Trump. And as FiveThirtyEight and other observers note, his support seems much more sustained than usual for a third‐party candidate and more likely to last through Election Day. He is very likely to have an impact on who wins some closely contested states.
Moreover, some of the polls have not been updated in some weeks, so it’s possible that, given the ongoing struggles of Clinton and Trump, Johnson might have made further gains that aren’t yet reflected in the average of the polls designated by the debate commission.
One needn’t agree with Johnson on every issue to agree that he would bring an important and distinctive point of view to the conversation. He is more fiscally conservative than either Trump or Clinton but moderate on social issues, and skeptical of U.S. intervention overseas. He could be expected to challenge the other two candidates on actual issues rather than exchange insults and personal attacks. For example, Johnson would be the only candidate in the debate who unabashedly supports free trade. He has executive experience, as a Republican governor in a blue state, and is neither under FBI investigation nor consorting with white supremacists. Admittedly that’s a low bar, but shouldn’t American voters be able to hear from at least one candidate who meets it?
In one recent poll, Quinnipiac found that 62 percent of voters want Johnson included in the debates. That includes comfortable majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Among younger voters (ages 18–34), support for including Johnson in the debates was 82 percent.
Both the Johnson campaign and the super PACs supporting him have recently begun national advertising. With polls showing that some two‐thirds of voters don’t know enough about him to have formed an opinion, he has an opportunity to build support toward that magic 15 percent mark. But there may not be time.
In the end, even if he makes it to the debate stage, voters may still decide not to take a chance on a third‐party candidate. There is always a worry about “throwing away my vote,” and that is especially true when voters detest one or the other of the major‐party candidates as much as they do this year. Johnson’s chances of victory are tiny at best. (Of course, the same might be said of Trump at this point.) But shouldn’t the decision whether to let him debate Clinton and Trump be made by the American voters rather than by self‐appointed gatekeepers?
It’s a question of both fairness and democracy: Let Johnson debate.