Third party candidates like Jill Stein (Green Party) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) face a major hurdle to political legitimacy : not being included in national polls that determine debate eligibility.
Historically, third party candidates have had a difficult time establishing name recognition. Media coverage, mega donors, and attention tend to gravitate toward the Republican and Democratic candidates -- leaving outside voices out of the national dialogue.
This year, Stein and Johnson have seen markedly more coverage, as many voters -- including members of the Republican and Democratic parties -- look for alternatives besides Trump and Clinton. Yet recent polls report that only 27 percent of Americans even know who the most prominent third-party candidate -- Gary Johnson -- is.
Third party and independent candidates have one shot to elevate their name recognition and enter the national dialogue, and that is to join the major party candidates on the fall presidential debate stage. Yet, under current debate rules -- put in place by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates -- candidates must poll at 15 percent in national surveys mere weeks before the first debate.
However, third-party candidates find themselves caught in a catch-22: polling and news companies -- like Quinnipiac, USA Today, and CNN -- see third parties as on the “fringe” with little clout, so many pollsters don’t include them in their surveys. Therefore, high poll numbers are hard to come by.
It’s a cyclical problem: Stein and Johnson are polling low because they lack name recognition. And the biggest boon of name recognition is impossible to reach without significant name recognition.
Makes the head spin a little, doesn't it?
Many polls -- like those cited by this New York Times article - only pit Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton against each other. Clinton has maintained a slight lead over Trump by about 5 percentage points. Another 5 percent refuse to respond.
However, when polls explicitly include options for “other” or “unknown,” support for an unnamed candidate besides Clinton or Trump skyrockets to as high as 37 percent.
And when polls ask voters their preference between Clinton, Trump, Johnson, and Stein, Clinton leads at approximately 40 percent, then Trump at about 35 percent. Gary Johnson polls at around 10 percent and Jill Stein reaches about 5 percent.
Johnson told The Hill that many news outlets argue that he’s not well-known enough to be included in polls.
“The game is rigged,” says Johnson, “There’s no way a third-party candidate can compete unless they’re on the debate stage, and you can’t get there unless you’re in the polls.”
Johnson is within reasonable reach of the 15 percent target, at least on the polls on which his name appears.
Although less vocal, Green Party candidate Jill Stein is running her own petition to “open the debates,” which asserts that the CPD is a private body run by the major parties and requests four to six candidates in future presidential debates.
In addition, a lawsuit filed in September 2015 by Stein, Johnson, their parties, and other pro-third party organizations accuses the Democratic and Republican National Committees of colluding with the CPD and violating anti-trust legislation to keep independents and third-partiers out of national debates.
The stated mission of the CPD is to educate voters, and is labelled a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. However, according to another lawsuit filed by Level the Playing Field, the Commission on Presidential Debates is neither nonpartisan nor uses objective criteria to determine debate entry as required by FEC rules.
“It is more important ... to get these rules right and to open the process to amazing Americans who could run, but refuse to be affiliated with either party, refuse to create a loyalty oath to either party, but who will not run because they can’t compete under these rules,” Level the Playing Field Peter Ackerman said on C-SPAN in December.
Among the plaintiffs in the Level the Playing Field lawsuit are the national Libertarian and Green parties.
Third party and independent candidates have played an integral role in presidential elections since before the 20th century, fostering national debate, introducing new issues to national attention, and providing alternatives to two hegemonic parties. By imposing rules that discourage the participation of outsiders, many third party activists and political reformers argue that the CPD is stifling constructive discussion of opinions.