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Commission on Presidential Debates to Allow Third Candidate? Yeah Right...

Created: 15 January, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
2 min read

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates claim they are open to including an independent or third-party candidate in the general election debates. This is true, but only if the third candidate clears a near-impossible hurdle or a major movement emerges that pressures the commission to change the rules regarding candidate inclusion.

CPD co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Michael McCurry, will appear on the PBS public affairs show, The Open Mind, on January 24 to discuss the issue.

"The dynamic in the electorate right now and the dissatisfaction with the two major political parties could very conceivably allow an independent or a third-party candidate to emerge, and we are very clear that they would be welcome in these debates,” McCurry told Open Mind host Alexander Heffner.

When asked if the commissioners hoped that there would be an alternative voice represented in the debates, Fahrenkopf said, "I think it would be great."

Current debate criteria requires candidates outside the two major parties to a) be eligible to run for president, b) qualify in enough states to have a mathematical shot at winning the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election, and c) must be polling at 15% in national polls chosen by the CPD 7 weeks ahead of Election Day, a highly improbable task for any candidate who does not have established name recognition already.

“The way our system works, if you are not known to be in the debates or have the prospect of being in the debates, you’re not considered legitimate by the media, you won’t be covered by the media, and therefore you have no way to get name recognition, unless you buy it through your own advertising,” Level the Playing Field chair Peter Ackerman explained on C-SPAN in December.

The Washington Post confirms this by suggesting that there are "no prominent third-party candidates vying to join the Republican and Democratic nominees," despite the fact that former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson officially announced he was running for the Libertarian nomination recently, and there are plenty of other candidates running under a third party or as independents.

Whether voters like it or not, society has mostly allowed the media to decide for the public which candidates are viable and which candidates aren't.

Ackerman, who is currently suing CPD over the 15 percent rule, says current studies show that the price tag for any independent or third-party candidate to buy the amount of exposure a candidate gets from participating in the Republican or Democratic debates is estimated to be around $260 million.

Neither CPD co-chair said they were willing to tweak the rules or offer any special accommodation to change the two-party structure of the fall presidential debates, which means that the one solution for voters who want an alternative option is to get behind a nonpartisan movement that pressures the CPD to change its rules.

Until that happens, it is unlikely that voters will see more than two people on the presidential debate stage in 2016, in the near future, or in any of our lifetimes.