BANK SHOT

How Do We Fix the Presidential Debates?

A group is looking to get third-party and independent candidates into the debates with the two major presidential nominees. But is that really a good idea?

08.06.15 10:39 AM ET

The numbers tell the story of voter disenchantment with the two major political parties.  More than 40 percent of Americans identify as independents, and 65 percent wish they had the option to vote for an independent candidate for president in 2016. If Donald Trump makes good on his threat to run third party should he feel disrespected by the GOP, voters might get their wish and Trump would likely join the two major party nominees in the presidential debates.

For anybody but Trump, however, getting onto the debate stage with the Republican and Democratic nominees is such a high hurdle that potentially credible candidates are discouraged from even trying. Among independent candidates, only Ross Perot in 1992 managed to poll above the 15 percent threshold in the spring and summer to get him into the debates with President George H.W. Bush and then Governor Bill Clinton.

Frustration with how the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) allegedly favors the two major political parties and locks out promising alternatives prompted financier Peter Ackerman to found “Level the Playing Field”. Together with the Green Party and the Libertarian National Committee, the group is suing the Federal Election Commission to “Change the Rule” that requires any contender outside the Big Two to meet that 15 percent polling threshold to qualify for the critically important fall debates.

In their court filing, the plaintiffs charge that the CPD, established in 1987, uses “nonobjective, biased rules designed to exclude independent or third-party candidates from the presidential debates.” They contend that the 15 percent polling requirement means that a candidate must have a minimum 60 percent national name recognition. According to pollster Doug Schoen, who is cited in the lawsuit, reaching that level requires $113 million worth of advertising, and no third party or independent candidate has ever raised that much. 

The suit was filed in June, but two months are a lifetime in politics, and Trump’s rise in the polls -- along with his braggadocio about how rich he is — create a radically different context for the facts as presented.  What are meant to be eye-popping numbers, like Schoen’s prediction that a third party in 2016 would be looking at an overall budget of $266 million, don’t seem so outlandish when Trump is in the mix.

If Trump chooses to run third party, he would likely meet the criteria, as they currently exist, to get into the 2016 presidential debates. But what Level the Playing Field seeks to do is open the door to other less well known candidates who are outside the two-party system and want to run as an independent.

“It sounds appealing in terms of democratic theory, but its practical consequences may not strengthen democracy but actually weaken it,” says Mark Siegel, who has a Ph.D. in political science and is a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. “A lot of people depend on the debates to make their decision. The more time you give to unelected third, fourth and fifth parties, the less time voters get to hear from people who have a chance to win.”

Level the Playing Field is the successor to Americans Elect, also founded by Ackerman, which got on the ballot in 41 states in 2012 but was unable to attract credible candidates in part, the lawsuit contends, because they knew they would be excluded from the debates.

In pressing to “Change the Rule,” the lawsuit contends that simply lowering the 15 percent threshold to 10 percent, for example, would not be enough. Level the Playing Field proposes a national signature drive competition where the winner would be expected to collect some 4 to 6 million signatures from a cross section of Americans to gain entrance to the debates.

It sounds like American Idol, and it was an early red flag to one of Level the Playing Field’s backers, Les Francis, who was involved on the Democratic side in debate negotiations in 1980, 1984, and 1988.

“I worry about the lack of safeguards to prevent the emergence of a truly fringe or even dangerous third candidate, someone with a small but highly energized and zealous following, and how that might cause the two major party nominees to forgo the debates altogether, or to seek a separate arrangement with another debate host/sponsor,” he wrote in a letter to Ackerman early last month. But that alone wasn’t what drove him to end his association with LPF, he explains in the letter.

Francis was one of fifty signatories to the LPF lawsuit along with a host of disillusioned Democrats and Republicans that include former Republican governors Jon Huntsman, Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman, former Democratic Senator Robert Kerrey, and former Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, among many others with perhaps not so obvious a partisan gripe.

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Francis still agrees that the “partisan duopoly” of the CPD should be broken up, but he parted company with Ackerman when Level the Playing Field doubled down on its anti-CPD message with a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal that make Commission co-chairs, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Mike McCurry, look like they are on “Wanted” posters. “TWO MEN AND THEIR FRIENDS crush any chance for an independent candidate for president to compete on a level playing field,” the ads declare.     

CPD’s board is a roster of some of the two parties’ most distinguished alums, people like former Missouri Senator Jack Danforth, former head of the CIA Leon Panetta, and former member of Congress Jane Harman, who heads the Wilson Center. “These are serious public-minded people,” says Francis. “These are not hacks.”

Francis says serious talks were underway with the CPD to make some changes and possibly to lower the polling threshold to 10 percent when Ackerman’s group blew everything up by joining forces with the Greens and the Libertarians in what Francis calls “a bank shot” to challenge the legitimacy of the Commission. He concludes his stinging letter to Ackerman, a copy of which he shared with the Daily Beast, with an insistence that the course Ackerman has chosen will likely lead to “glorious, symbolic defeat over the possibility of some measurable and meaningful reforms.”

The presidential debates are more than a year away, and reforms are in the works as the CPD grapples with a new media environment and the challenge of reaching large groups of voters turned off by overly scripted politicians and debate rules that protect the candidates from any meaningful exchanges. A bipartisan panel under the auspices of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania — and co-chaired by Democrat Anita Dunn and Republican Beth Myers — offer a host of worthy suggestions in a recently released 47-page report.

Opening up the stage to additional candidates is not one of them.