A Political Revolution is Happening — And It Starts with the Presidential Debates

Hillary Clinton recently touted her longstanding loyalty to the Democratic Party and the importance of being a “real” Democrat nominee. Bernie Sanders, previously the longest serving independent in Congress, declared as a Democrat because of our system’s unfavorable treatment of independents and third party candidates. He even went so far as to call out the media, telling MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that the network wouldn’t have covered him had he remained an independent.

Sanders’ accurate perception of a necessary move ironically coincides with a nationwide countercurrent that has seen party affiliation sink to an all-time low, with 42% of Americans now identifying as independents. Adding to the momentum, the current Democratic and Republican front-runners are largely unpalatable to a large percentage of the electorate; in fact, their unpopularity is unprecedented.

IVN has published dozens of articles describing how the two parties have concocted the process, from primaries to debates, in a manner that disenfranchises independent voters and stifles additional options. The silver lining in an election featuring two largely divisive and weak candidates is the impetus to look at how we got here and harness voter dissatisfaction to affect change.

Why are the presidential debates, which garner the largest audience and are the most likely to generate a more diverse range of ideas, limited to only two candidates?

The primary system is an elaborate setup that varies from state to state, as well as being somewhat different for each party. However, one thing that is more visible to most Americans is the series of debates between presidential candidates that has traditionally occurred after the nominees are selected.

If the Democratic Party can generate more than a half dozen reasonably credible candidates (including some most people have never heard of, such as Rocky De La Fuente, who is on the ballot in 46 states) and the Republicans can put out 17 who actually made it to the first round of debates, why are the presidential debates, which garner the largest audience and are the most likely to generate a more diverse range of ideas, limited to only two candidates? It is primarily because the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private company established in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties, makes the decisions.

The CPD has moderated the debates since 1988. Prior to that, the League of Women Voters organized the debates from 1976 to 1984. In 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship of the debates after the Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns secretly agreed to a “memorandum of understanding” that would decide, among other things, which candidates could participate in the debates. The League said “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission’s creation, then-Republican National Committee chairman and current CPD co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf said that the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates. The other co-chair,  then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk, said he personally believed they should be excluded.

League president Nancy M. Neuman further stated that she thought the parties were trying to steal the debates from the American voters:

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.  The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Since that time, the CPD’s questionable behavior has been the target of scathing criticism and numerous lawsuits.

In 1992, independent Ross Perot was allowed to participate in the debates, but after receiving nearly 19% of the popular vote wasn’t invited back in 1996 based on an arbitrary judgment that he didn’t have enough of a chance of winning. The threshold was eventually lowered to 15%, but while the debates clearly can’t invite every candidate, this figure is unreasonably high.

As Ralph Nader pointed out, without someone wealthy enough to buy airtime, absence from the debates leaves no chance for serious consideration by the majority of voters and or address the major party nominees directly.

In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity called the CPD “a largely secretive tax-exempt organization, created and run by former chairmen of the two major parties, funded by a small group of unidentified major donors, and designed, it seems, to exclude nearly all third-party candidates.”

Worse, when CPI analyzed CPD’s financials they found 93% of the contributions came from just six donors, the names of which were blacked out because nonprofits are not required to disclose them.

 

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

 

As recently as 2012, the non-profit Open Debates was joined by 17 other organizations in calling out a secret contract between the CPD and the Obama and Romney campaigns informing the candidates of the topics in advance. In October of that year, the CPD lost corporate sponsors for the first time.

Even supporters of the overall format have found a number of issues with how the CPD handles debates, but organizations such as Level the Playing Field have filed lawsuits accusing the CPD of backroom deals and “stacking the deck” in favor of the status quo. Backed by financier Peter Ackerman, Level the Playing Field is trying to stop what has essentially turned into a predetermined outcome.

Ackerman noted, “There would [be] a lot of people who would be willing to run if they knew they had a chance to be in the debates.” They have proposed an “independent primary” of televised events by qualified independents leading to the winner getting on the regular debate stage.

In October of last year, the CPD responded to the filing saying, “The CPD’s debates are not intended to serve as a springboard for a candidate with only very modest support. Participation in the debates is determined by the level of public support a candidate enjoys as Election Day approaches.”

Other groups including the Libertarian and Green parties, who filed suit in September, are pushing the CPD to include all candidates who are legally qualified to serve and whose names appear on enough state ballots to potentially secure a majority in the Electoral College.

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Ackerman highlighted a number of anti-competitive campaign and debate practices, but also that the existing “rules don’t have the force of law. With good will and imagination, they can be modified or eliminated.”

These organizations are starting to gain momentum in supporting greater choice. There are certainly other areas that need to be addressed, such as the primary process, although this movement might help make that largely obsolete.

Regardless, this is a start and the tide is turning, even in unlikely places. Recently, Arizona’s Republican governor called for the state to open its primaries to independent voters, the same day the Supreme Court denied an attempt by Montana’s Republican Party to close their primary elections to anyone other than GOP-registered voters.

The Independent Voter Project, a publisher of IVN.us, is one place where you can find petitions to include an additional candidate in the presidential debates and support for more inclusive elections.