Open Up the Presidential Debates!

Why independent candidates would be a welcome addition to the main presidential debates next fall.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

Americans believe their political system is broken and doesn’t represent them. That’s certainly what’s behind the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two unconventional candidates who each has the support of about one-fourth of his party. But Trump and Sanders sit on the tip of a very large iceberg.

Below the surface is a mass of independent voters. “The largest party in the United States is not a political party at all,” said Chuck Todd on Meet the Press last month. Some 45 percent of Americans say they are political independents, compared with 27 percent who identify as Democrats and 20 percent as Republicans.

Independents remain submerged because they don’t have a candidate—even though 62 percent of U.S. voters say they’d like a chance to choose someone who’s neither the Democratic nor Republican nominee. But an independent or third-party candidate can’t get elected without being on the stage for the final fall 2016 presidential debates, and a group of 17 unelected citizens, nearly all of them stalwarts of the major parties, is blocking them.

Standing in the way is something called the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit whose charter and mandate from the Federal Election Commission require it to be “non-partisan”—though it clearly isn’t. The commission is co-chaired by the former head of the Republican Party, Frank Fahrenkopf, and the ex-press secretary to President Clinton, Mike McCurry. The group, firmly bi-partisan, has set rules to keep independents off the stage.

Here’s the way one commission member, former Senator Alan Simpson, sums his up responsibility: “The purpose of the commission, it seems to me, is to try to preserve the two-party system that works very well, and if you like the multiparty system, then go to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia. I think it’s obvious that independent candidates mess things up.”

By a two-to-one margin, however, U.S. voters support relaxing the rules that effectively bar an independent from that stage, according to a poll and focus groups conducted by Peter D. Hart for the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Debate Reform. The most contentious rule requires that a candidate poll 15 percent of the electorate in surveys taken shortly before the first debate, or roughly seven weeks before the election.

In a piece on The Daily Beast recently, Eleanor Clift wrote, “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.”

In fact, it was not until 1999 (seven years after Perot ran) that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) established its 15 percent polling threshold. In 1992, no such threshold existed; the CPD used a more subjective standard. Immediately prior to the initial 1992 debate, Perot was polling at just 8 percent, although he’d reached a higher threshold in the previous June. In fact, no independent candidate who did not compete in a party primary has polled at 15 percent in September in a half-century.

Clift also noted that the CPD is considering lowering the threshold to 10 percent. That’s true, but it still presents an enormous obstacle. As long as the commission keeps the determination date in September, it would still effectively block independents from the stage. Not knowing that he or she would be a debater until just before the first contest would prevent an independent from gaining the media attention and funding to be a serious contender—a fact the commission knows very well. Which is why it has insisted on the September date.

I am part of an informal group of 50 current and former public officials and leaders in business, academia, and the military called Change the Rule. We’re all campaigning to open the debates as a way to improve American democracy, and wherever I go to speak about our movement, I find enormous support.

Specifically, we want a solution that follows three principles: 1) a competition for the third spot (not an arbitrary polling hurdle) open to all candidates who are not the Democratic and Republican nominees; 2) direct voter engagement (signature drives or online voting, for example) to measure an independent candidate’s strength and legitimacy; and 3) one winner by April 30, 2016, thus allowing enough time to boost name recognition, and put the independent on a par with the other nominees.

We’ve offered several alternatives to the CPD—and, more important, we’ve offered since the beginning of this year to sit down with the entire commission to discuss the way the CPD wants to open the debates. So far, no dice. A “reexamination” of the CPD’s rules “is long overdue,” as Ann Ravel, chair of the Federal Election Commission, recently stated. She cast doubt on the use of polling in an era when surveys have proven so inaccurate.

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A few weeks ago, six Change the Rules members made an exciting proposal in a letter to the CPD. The six include four former elected officials: Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE), Gov. Tom Kean (R-NJ), and Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and Vin Weber (R-MN), plus former CIA Director Michael Hayden and a leading scholar on democracy, Larry Diamond of Stanford.

They proposed a month-long series of debates, interviews, and online voting—with participation by all Americans (not just from New Hampshire or Iowa)—that would culminate in the selection of a single independent candidate to stand on the stage with the Democratic and Republican nominees for debates in September and October 2016.

This is precisely what independents want. And, more important, it is what the country needs to get out of our rut of polarization and poor political performance. To work, however, the proposal needs the CPD onboard—simply to say yes to that third candidate. America is waiting for an answer.

James K. Glassman, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, is one of the 50 signers of the Change the Rule Letter. He is also an advisor to Level the Playing Field, another group pushing for presidential debate reform.