AMERICAN PROSPECT: Third party presidential candidates locked out of debates

October 11, 2012
Cole Stangler
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The 2012 election is the fifth straight presidential election to feature no third-party candidates in the debates—and as a result, there's also a lack of engagement with issues that the two major-party candidates don’t want to discuss. 

The debates are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a 501(c)(3) organization created by the Democratic and Republican national committees and funded by corporate sponsors. This year, as usual, the commission extended invitations to only the Democratic and Republican candidates—much to the chagrin of third-party candidates and the handful of nonprofit organizations committed to including more voices in the debates.

“The commission survives on deception. ... It sounds like a government agency, but of course, it’s not,” said George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, a group leading the charge to include third-party candidates in the presidential debates. “Every four years, it allows negotiators, the Republican and Democratic nominees, to meet behind closed doors and hammer out a contract that dictates the terms of the presidential debates.”  

The commission has been in charge of running every presidential debate since its formation in 1987. It took over this function from the League of Women Voters, which declined to honor a pre-debate contract drawn up by the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns. After refusing the contract’s conditions, League of Women Voters President Nancy Neuman held a press conference in which she declared that her organization had “no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

The last time a third-party candidate participated in the presidential debates was in 1992, when Ross Perot was invited. Before that, independent John Anderson attended a debate against Ronald Reagan in 1980—but without the presence of President Jimmy Carter, who refused to partake with Anderson on stage. Eventually, after sustained pressure from the president’s campaign, Anderson was excluded from the final debate, leaving Reagan and Carter alone on stage. 

The commission declined to comment for this story. Its principal argument against including more candidates is that third-party campaigns aren’t serious contenders and that the debates should be reserved for those candidates with an actual shot at winning the presidency. Indeed, one of its criteria for invitation this year is for candidates to “demonstrat[e] a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations.” None of the minor-party candidates come close to meeting that threshold.

But its other main criteria—that candidates must qualify for ballot access in enough states to be able to theoretically win the Electoral College—applies to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian candidate Governor Gary Johnson, and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode. Stein and Johnson have also qualified for federal matching funds.

This year, the commission has taken the usual heat from third-party candidates and nonprofit organizations. But what’s unusual this time is that three of the commission’s ten identified sponsors have dropped out, including BBH New York, the YWCA, and most notably, corporate giant Philips on Monday. Farah called the loss of sponsors “totally unprecedented.”

In a written statement to the Prospect, Mark Stephenson, head of corporate communications for Philips North America, explained the basis of the company’s decision. “While the Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonpartisan organization, their work may appear to support bipartisan politics,” Stephenson wrote. “We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn’t provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics."

Polls suggest most Americans would be in favor of opening up the debates. A Gallup poll last month showed that 46 percent of Americans believe that the two parties “do such a poor job … of representing the American people” that a third major party is needed.

Farah said that the commission’s loss of sponsors is a result of the pressure exerted by groups like his own and an intense lobbying campaign waged, in large part, by supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. 

The Johnson campaign, which did not respond to requests to comment for this story, has also spearheaded a lawsuit challenging the commission on the basis of violating anti-trust law. The lawsuit charges that the Democrats, Republicans, and the commission constitute a monopoly conspiring to restrain competition and the free exchange of ideas.

Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee for president, said that the commission doesn’t want alternative ideas to come forward in the debates. She said her own proposals, which include major cuts in military spending, an end to the War on Drugs, forgiveness of student-loan debt, a Medicare-for-all health plan, and a “Green New Deal” modeled after the programs of the 1930s, would be “highly inconvenient” for the main candidates to grapple with in a debate setting. “The debates are about as spontaneous and relevant and riveting as the rest of this election,” she said.

When asked if her single-digit polling performance should be a barrier for inclusion in the debates, Stein, whose campaign doesn’t take corporate donations, rejected that notion. “Well, that’s a very good self-serving criteria, because what it essentially says is that if you don’t have big corporate sponsorship, you’re not a legitimate candidate. If we don’t have a free, fair, and open media that provides a level playing field for all qualified candidates, the only other way to get to 10, 15 percent in the polls is to have oodles of money to be able to buy TV advertising, to have hundreds of millions of dollars at a minimum,” she said. “To buy into that criteria that you have to get past the starting gate [in order to be invited to the debates] amounts to saying that only corporate-sponsored candidates are legitimate.”

Stein and Johnson did recently appear in a “Third Party Candidate Debate” broadcast on NPR. And on October 23, Stein, Johnson, and Virgil Goode plan to participate in an alternative debate in Chicago.

“But to tell you the truth, that’s kind of the second-class citizenship debate,” Stein said of the event in Chicago. “It’s tough when the real people you need to talk to won’t talk to you at all."