During the Republican primary debates earlier this year we often saw six candidates crowding the stage for the prime time debates with nearly half dozen others populating the “JV” contests. Yet, it seems only two podiums could be located for the presidential debates once the major parties selected their candidates.
The culprit in this case of disappearing podiums is the Commission on Presidential Debates. (CPD) The CPD is a private, non profit corporation established in 1987 to “organize, manage, produce, publicize and support debates for the candidates for President of the United States.” Self described as “non-partisan”, it was in fact co-founded by the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties. Its current co-chairs are former Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and Bill Clinton’s former press secretary Mike McCurry. In reality, it is at best a “bi-partisan” entity. Bi-partisan in the strictest sense in that the CPD is in fact a joint venture of the Democratic and Republican parties. It might as well be a wholly owned subsidiary.
One of the CPD’s functions appears to be the suppression of third party candidates. In an election season where the two major party candidates have the lowest approval ratings seen in two generations, this is particularly disturbing. The Libertarian candidates, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld while certainly presenting a clear alternative are by no means a fringe ticket. Johnson and Weld are both former two term Republican governors of regionally disparate blue states (New Mexico and Massachusetts) .
The CPD contends no candidates are automatically selected for participation in debates.
Each candidate must:
- be Constitutionally qualified
- appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority in the Electoral College
- reach a national support level of 15 % as recorded in a selection of 5 national opinion polls
Of course, the Democratic and Republican parties are the only parties who meet these criteria each and every election cycle. To say their candidates are not automatically selected is a trifle disingenuous.
The Libertarian ticket appears on the ballot in all 50 states and falls short only in regard to criteria 3. This criteria is at odds with national polling indicating a clear and growing majority of Americans believe a third party is needed. Further, it is reasonable to expect that once a ticket is excluded from an initial debate, the morning after media obsession with “who won” the debate would serve to crowd out any third parties’ message. The 15 % polling requirement than becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.