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Academics, Politicos Raise Pressure on Debate Commission to Allow Independents

Created: 02 June, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read

As the pressure mounts to open up the fall 2016 presidential debates to an independent candidate, Bloomberg Politics reporter Emily Greenhouse has written an excellent piece headlined: "Group Seeks to Break Two-Party Stranglehold on Presidential Debates." The piece follows similar coverage by the Washington Post's David Ignatius.

As Greenhouse writes, that group, Level the Playing Field, has been running full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal headlined, "TWO MEN AND THEIR FRIENDS...crush any chance for an independent candidate for president to compete on a level playing field."

The two men are Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates and party stalwarts. Fahrenkopf was chairman of the Republican National Committee. McCurry is a Democratic activist who served as President Clinton's press secretary.

The commission is, by its own charter, supposed to be nonpartisan, not bipartisan; yet as Greenhouse points out, "its members are chosen by Democratic and Republican insiders," and it "forces independent candidates to meet an impossible polling threshold only seven weeks before the election."

Greenhouse quotes James K. Glassman, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former under secretary of state, as saying in a note to journalists that "overwhelming numbers of Americans think the political system is broken" and that he and four dozen other "former and current government officials and military, business, and academic leaders" signed a letter "asking the Commission to end its defense of the duopoly for the sake of the health of our democracy."

For the article, Greenhouse interviewed Fahrenkopf, who is feeling the heat and attempting to defend a system that is under heavy criticism by respected Americans. Fahrenkopf blithely disregards the arguments they are raising.

"The only time we were not sued by someone who wanted to get into the debate was in 2008," he said.

But the 2015 movement is no joking matter. This time is different.

The current system is under attack by some of the most prominent political scientists in America, including Larry Diamond of Stanford and David King of Harvard, who are among the four-dozen signers, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who is quoted at length by Greenhouse.

Jamieson disposes of one of Fahrenkopf's main contentions -- that a 15 percent polling threshold close to the election is necessary to qualify for the debates. But not a single candidate who has not run in a Democratic or Republican primary has met that criterion in more than half a century.

Fahrenkopf and other members of the Commission, in response to the pressure, are hinting that they might lower the polling qualification by a few percentage points. The catch, however, is that the 17 members of the CPD wait to make their polling determination until just seven weeks before the election. And if independents don't know they'll be in the debates until then, they can't possibly raise the money to be viable candidates.

Here is the way Jamieson puts it, in her interview with Bloomberg: "We need to ask, when there is a viable candidate from one of the other parties an independent party: How do we ensure that their voice gets access early enough in the process to build a constituency?"The answer is that if independents know they can get into the fall debates if they meet reasonable criteria by April, they will campaign as hard as party candidates. Under the current rules, knowing they have no chance of being on the same stage as the Democrat and Republican, independents simply can't raise money or get media attention.

Change the rules that keep independents out, and you change the entire dynamic of presidential politics.

How to change? The signers of the letter to the Commission, or CPD, accept the CPD's first hurdle: that a candidate qualify for the ballot in states representing at least 270 electoral votes. Then, if more than one candidate clears the hurdle, the candidate with the most signatures - just one candidate - will join the debate. Every state in the Union uses signatures to determine ballot access -- none use polls.

The signers are open to other ideas as well, but they lay down competition for one position on the stage as a principle. Meanwhile, the party stalwarts on the CPD don't want to change at all -- and you can understand why. They want to keep competition out.

This is a rigged game, as Professors Diamond and King point out in a letter to Fahrenkopf and McCurry, responding to their recent op-ed in Politico Magazine:

"Your op-ed states that the CPD 'does not endorse, support or oppose any political candidates or parties' and your Directors are 'firmly committed to the non-partisan...mission of the CPD.' However, numerous CPD Directors, including both of you, have publicly endorsed or contributed to Republican or Democratic candidates for President (and some have even endorsed or headlined fundraisers for candidates in the 2016 campaign). This is a conflict of interest that undermines the public's trust in the CPD and in the political process more broadly. How can the CPD design rules that are fair to independent candidates in 2016 when many of its board members are involved with candidates of the two major parties?"

Good question.  But there are some fair-minded members of the CPD.  So far their silence has been deafening. But that sad situation may soon change.

Editor’s note: This issue of Presidential Debate News originally published on the organization’s site on June 1, 2015, and has been edited for publication on IVN.