Presidential Debates Will Almost Definitely Exclude Third Parties

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

This fall’s presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are already expected to be explosive, but the organizers could throw an additional factor into the mix.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has instructed the universities and stadiums hosting the debates to leave room for a third podium. That podium, if it appears at all, would likely be occupied by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who has been creeping up in the polls as voters turned off by both Trump and Clinton search for another option.

Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, told ThinkProgress in July that access to the debates would allow him to call out the Republican Party for what he perceives to be a blatant hypocrisy: calling for a smaller, less intrusive government while pushing policies that have the opposite effect.

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

“Republicans have a social agenda that I think turns off most Americans,” he said. “They are fighting against marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, and the use of marijuana. I mean, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, but Republicans seem to be leaning into the drug war where everyone else is leaning back.”

Johnson, who previously told ThinkProgress that he aligns with Bernie Sanders on “about three quarters” of all issues, said that his differences with Republicans on national security are particularly stark. Pointing to Trump’s eagerness for “dropping bombs” and committing war crimes, Johnson said: “Someone has to be the skeptic on this. I think it’s really significant that among active military members, I’m polling the highest. They’re saying, ‘We’re here to serve but we want to be used very judiciously. Make it mean something.’”

Though he reserved most of his criticism for the Republican Party, Johnson also characterized the Democratic Party as fiscally irresponsible. “Democrats wouldn’t know how to balance a checkbook if it bit them,” he said.

But Johnson will likely never get to bring these zingers to the national debate stage. Even as he hits double digits in some key swing states, he will likely not clear the high bar set by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

To qualify for the debate stage, candidates have to secure 15 percent in an average of five polls: ABC-Washington Post, CBS-New York Times, CNN-Opinion Research Corporation, Fox News, and NBC-Wall Street Journal. Johnson is currently averaging about 10 percent. The other major third party candidate, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, is currently around 5 percent in that average.

Green Party nominee Jill Stein at her campaign launch in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Green Party nominee Jill Stein at her campaign launch in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Some of the polls used do not even include Stein as an option, leading her to complain the process is rigged against her. But the Debate Commission says they will only look at an average of polls that do include her to determine her eligibility.

Stein and Johnson unsuccessfully sued the Commission on Presidential Debates last fall, claiming that their rules for determining who stands on the debate stage violate both the First Amendment and anti-trust laws. A judge threw the lawsuit out last week, saying that because the Commission is a private entity, it is not bound by the First Amendment.

Stein is correct, however, in her assertion that since it took over running presidential debates in 1988, the Commission has “tr[ied] mightily, and usually succeeded, in keeping third party candidates out.”

A private non-profit organization that takes corporate donations and includes former governors and members of Congress, the Commission has only allowed a third party candidate onto the debate stage one time: Ross Perot in 1992. The Commission then excluded Perot in 1996, arguing that he was not a “viable” candidate. After accusations of bias against third party contenders, the Commission implemented the 15 percent rule for the 2000 election.

On Wednesday, CNN will hold a televised town hall with Stein, giving her some of the national exposure she desperately needs.

“For third party candidates, who typically don’t get much media coverage and can’t compete with the major parties’ ad budgets, debates are everything,” the Green Party said. “Voters have a right to hear directly from their possible choices for the highest office in the land. These choices should reflect the diversity of American political opinion.”