Getting a spot on the general election debate stage is no easy task. Getting to 15% in 5 different polls is a slog for anyone who isn’t a Republican or Democrat, who will appear on the stage with pretty much all certainty every single election year.
And while the two parties that comprise our political system duke it out, other parties are merely trying to get a word in, but are finding it hard to for various reasons, but the main one being that many don’t even know they exist. This, of course, would change if the debate stage was more attainable. Nothing does wonders for growing your base like being seen and heard.
Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party has reached close to 15% in one poll, but flags in others. This likely puts the debate stage out of his reach. It especially means that the Green Party’s Jill Stein won’t appear next to Trump and Clinton either.
These rules that keep the 3rd parties off the stage were set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD is a private non-profit 501(c)(3), and is run by former head of the Republican National Committee, Frank Fahrenkopf.
The organization itself was founded in 1987 by a bipartisan Republican/Democrat effort, and has run the debates ever since. It was in the year 2000 that they established the rules that a candidate can only appear on the stage with 15% in 5 polls, pretty much securing that only Republicans and Democrats would appear on the stage together.
If it sounds shady, you’re not the only one who thinks so. Before the CPD, the debates were run by the League of Women Voters from 1976 to 1984. The League withdrew when Republicans and Democrats made a deal that would give them full control over the debates, and how they were run.
Nancy Neuman, then head of the League, called the deal “outrageous,” and noted that the Democrats and Republicans wanted to control the questioners, composition of the audience, press access, and more. All of this was done behind closed doors. By the time the deal was done, the League was presented with 16 pages of non-negotiable rules for the debates.
When the League left in 1988 in protest, they put out this statement:
“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.
“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
“The campaigns’ agreement is a closed-door masterpiece,” Neuman said. “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.”
So, the CPD was started with a whisper that now controls one of the loudest stages in the nation. Years later, in the year 2000, the CPD would pass the 15% in 5 polls rule before they can appear next to the Republicans and Democrats who control the stage. For anyone outside the establishment parties, this is very, very difficult, and it would seem both parties like it that way.
This is not only unfair, it’s downright fraudulent in presentation to the public. It caused Walter Cronkite himself to say “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become … the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse.”
Whether you believe the CPD is a shady way to control the debate stage or not, the idea that the commission is run by two powerful parties is something that shouldn’t be the case, regardless. In the grand scheme, Republicans and Democrats deciding the rules on who gets to appear on a stage only Democrats and Republicans tend to be on is like two coaches refereeing the NFL.
Interestingly enough, many organizations have attempted to open the debates over the years. The latest is a group who started a change.org petition called Open the Debates. The petition currently has 7,449 supporters, and needs 2.5k to reach their goal of 10,000. Their goal is to change the rules from the current 15% out of 5, to qualifying if you appear on enough state ballots.
While not a perfect fix, it would definitely allow more wiggle room from the current stringent rules that allow candidates on the stage.
But one way or another, it’s in our best interest to change these rules. As it stands, the national spotlight is highlighting two parties, while keeping others in the dark, out of sight, and out of mind. Any other serious men or women who wish to make their case for the most powerful office in the world are being shunted aside.
In an election year just like this, when both the Democrat and Republican parties put forth candidates that are wildly unpopular, hearing our options is something we need.