We live in an almost stupefying world of proliferating choices and options that reflect and express our most important and our most banal impulses. On Facebook, we can choose from 50-something gender identities, and on the Internet we can produce and consume any media we choose. Astroglide offers 10 “flavors” of personal lubricant and Pop-Tarts come in more than three-dozen varieties that are constantly changing. Starbucks literally offers an almost infinite number of excrutiatingly personalized coffee drinks.
And yet when the first presidential debate takes place next Monday, the only people on the stage will be the two most reviled nominees in modern memory, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A third candidate, former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, will not be on the stage despite being on the ballot in all 50 states and polling at double digits in 42 states. In 15 states, he’s at 15 percent or better. But tough luck.
If you care about expanding choices and discussion when it comes to politics (and you should), the only proper reaction is outrage. But this glaringly shriveled choice is a feature not a bug of American politics.
Democrats and Republicans may disagree when it comes to abortion, spending, and taxes, but they are thick as thieves when it comes to maintaining an electoral duopoly (go check out your state’s ballot-access laws sometime). Nowhere is this collusion more flagrant than in the machinations of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the “nonpartisan” nonprofit that operates the debates and was created 29 years ago by the Democratic and Republican Parties with the goal of excluding third-party candidates.
“By jointly sponsoring these debates,” reads the 1987 press release (PDF) announcing the formation of the CPD, “we will better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all, we can institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process.”
I spoke by phone with one of the authors of that press release, former Democratic National Committee press secretary Terry Michael, to get a stronger sense of how the CPD was conceived and how it was, in his words, a “power play to confine the debates to a conversation between Republicans and Democrats.”
Once a “true believer in the two-party system,” Michael is now a “senior media advisor” to Gary Johnson’s campaign, so you can take his analysis with as much or as little salt as your blood pressure allows (full disclosure: Michael, who defines himself as a “libertarian Democrat,” has written for Reason.com, the website I edit). I also called the longtime head of the CPD, Janet Brown, but neither she nor anyone at her group was willing to speak on the record.
Although we take presidential debates for granted, there was a long stretches when they didn’t happen and were marred by technical screw-ups or obstinate participants. The first televised debate was held in 1960, but four years later Lyndon Johnson saw no reason to appear with lost-cause challenger Barry Goldwater. The next debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, didn’t take place until 1976, between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. It was denounced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan as “the most stupid arrangement of any debate in the history of debating,” and resulted in some of the most memorable dead air in TV history. In 1980, President Carter refused to participate in the first debate of the election because independent candidate John Anderson was on the stage.
That surprisingly sketchy history laid the groundwork for the CPD, says Michael, who adds that “political journalists had great disdain” for the League of Women Voters, which was seen as “school-marmish” and “prissy” in the way it organized and operated the debates. As important, he says, Democratic and Republican “party chairs didn’t want their candidates sullied by the inclusion of third-party candidates.” So the duopoly booted the League and took the debates in-house. If they could have kept Ross Perot out in 1992, they would have, says Michael, but the Texas tycoon was actually leading the polls in the middle of 1992 before unexpectedly and temporarily dropping out in mid-July (Perot bizarrely suggested that the Republican operatives were planning to disrupt his daughter’s wedding). Perot did get into the race in October and was invited to participate in the debates despite polling at 8 percent. The CPD couldn’t deny Perot because, says Michael, “even a crazy person should get on the stage if they had led in the polls.” Yet the commission would ignore Perot four years later, denying him a podium despite his winning 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992.
In 2000, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader polling as high as 6 percent as late as June, the CPD announced for the first time that debate participants must garner at least 15 percent in five national polls selected by the commission. That rule remains in place and in 2016, it’s been supplemented with a requirement that a candidate appear on enough state ballots to theoretically win enough electoral votes to become president. On its site, the CPD says the 15 percent threshold comes from its “analysis of the results of presidential elections over the modern era,” is consistent with the precedents set by the League of Women Voters and “found by the FEC and the courts to comply with federal election law.” In 2012, John Anderson offered a different take, telling CBS News that the debates are designed to lock in “the maintenance of a two-party system.” George Farah, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates, called the 15 percent number “absurdly high,” noting that candidates qualify for federal matching funds at 5 percent.
Unsurprisingly, Terry Michael concurs with such sentiments and offers up his own set of arguments for why Gary Johnson should join the stage with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. For starters, he stresses that the former governor is “on every voter’s ballot. That in itself should be the case.” Beyond that, he says the electorate is becoming increasingly restive, pointing to polls showing that independents are now the single largest bloc of voters. Michael says that the choice to include a given candidate can’t always be reduced to simple metrics. “They should consider who has developed enough of a following to merit being on the same stage with the Democrat and the Republican,” he says, adding that Johnson has “clearly” done that.
To be sure, Johnson didn’t cover himself in glory with his “What is Aleppo?” gaffe, but if spacing out during a morning talk show is a disqualifying offense, the debate stage would be emptier than a Lincoln Chafee meet-and-greet.
Certainly the point that Johnson is on the ballot (either as a Libertarian or an independent) in every state is worth lingering over. That means that the former two-term governor’s name will be in front of all of us who vote. Green Party candidate Jill Stein will be a choice for voters in 48 states, more than enough places to have real impact on electoral votes. It simply beggars credulity that any commission that claims its function is to “inform and educate the electorate” would keep such options off the stage.
Interestingly, Johnson is currently polling at 8.6 percent in Real Clear Politics’ aggregated results of seven national polls. Stein is at 3.1 percent, which may seem low until you realize that the spread between Clinton and Trump is 0.7 percent. Back in October 1992, when Ross Perot re-entered the race and was invited to join the debate with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he was at just 8 percent in the polls.
But that was then and this is now…when 60 percent of Americans keep telling pollsters that the “Republican and Democratic parties…do such a poor job [of representing the American people] that a third major party is needed.” It seems the last thing the two major parties and their Commission on Presidential Debates would want to see is a flowering of political options that approach the number of choices we take for granted in far less-important parts of our life.