Presidential Debates Co-Chair Says He Is Open to Including Independent Candidates in Final Debates

Created: 31 July, 2015
Updated: 16 October, 2022
3 min read

Michael Smerconish, the CNN TV and Sirius XM radio host, wrote Sunday in his Philadelphia Inquirer column that, in a "significant development... a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) expressed openness to the inclusion of third-party candidates" on the stage in the fall 2016 contests.

Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chair, was responding to a proposal advanced by Change the Rule, a group of American leaders who are pushing for the CPD to loosen restrictions that currently prevent an independent candidate from getting into the debates.

The group has proposed a national online primary to choose the single independent candidate to compete in the final debates. The primary would be preceded by a series of debates and other media events for independents and third-party candidates, who would qualify by collecting enough signatures to get on the ballot in states representing at least 270 electoral votes.

On Smerconish's program on Saturday, Fahrenkopf stated:

"There's no question the American people are unhappy with both political parties. They're unhappy with the whole political environment, and they want change. If there's 43 percent who are independents, they're going to be looking at plan and if can put it together."

Currently, in addition to getting on the ballot in enough states, the CPD requires a debate contestant to poll at least 15 percent in five surveys close to the first debate -- and just seven weeks before the election. Of note, no independent has ever polled 15 percent since the criterion was instituted and if candidates don't know until so close to the election that they'll be in the debates, then they'll have no chance to gain the media attention or funding to be a contender.

On Smerconish's show, Fahrenkopf said:

"No decision has been made on whether we're going to stay at 15 percent, we're going to lower it, or eliminate it altogether... I'm not saying that we're not going to do what they suggest, but those decisions haven't been made and we're taking them very seriously... And, we will announce in advance of next year's debates by at least one year."

From his appearance Saturday, it's not easy to read Fahrenkopf's intentions. Smerconish began by pointing out that independents nearly outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined and asked Fahrenkopf, "Don't those folks deserve representation in the general election debates?"

Fahrenkopf, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, replied, "Everyone deserves representation. The argument is over what is the criteria for people to qualify to be in the debates."

Correct. But then Fahrenkopf lumped the Change the Rule proposal together with a concept that has no chance at all to be accepted by the CPD (that anyone on the ballots in 270-electoral-vote states gets in the debates) and another idea that is no better (and probably worse) than the current rule: the use of a sliding scale of polling thresholds for three presidential debates: 10 percent, 15 percent, and 25 percent.

That sliding scale was offered by members of the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform. Unlike other proposals of the group - which, if enacted, would probably mean the demise of the CPD - this one failed to achieve a consensus among members.

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The fact is that the America's Primary proposal is a serious effort to give independents a real voice in the election of the president. But it won't work unless the CPD agrees that the winner of the primary gets into the debates. The debates validate the candidates. If you aren't in the debates, you can't be elected president.

Fahrenkopf and the other CPD members are at a crossroads. Will they turn in the direction of a healthier democracy?

Editor's note: This article originally published on Presidential Debate News on July 30, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.

Photo Source: Reuters

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