Debate Commission’s 15% Rule Is Older Than You Think

Readers who have been following IVN’s ongoing coverage of the debate commission and the lawsuits brought against it are acquainted with the Commission on Presidential Debate’s criterium that requires presidential candidates to poll at 15% or more in 5 polls hand-picked by the debate commission to appear on the presidential debate stage.

The 15% rule is the main criterium being challenged by groups like Level the Playing Field, who successfully sued the FEC over administrative complaints against the CPD’s rules for debate entry, and Gov. Gary Johnson, Dr. Jill Stein, their respective parties, and affiliated groups in a separate anti-trust lawsuit against the debate commission.

People think the 15% rule dates back only to 2000, when it was implemented by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But few know that the 15 percent standard is older than the CPD itself, dating back to a time when people actually picked up their phones to take surveys and when newspapers and media outlets were actually willing to cover an independent candidate like John B. Anderson.

Before the Republican and Democratic Parties agreed to become the primary sponsors of the fall presidential debates, the debates were organized by the League of Women Voters. In 1985, then-League President Dorothy S. Ridings defended the way independent candidates were treated by the League in a letter to the editor in the New York Times. She mentioned that the League used an entry standard that required candidates to poll at 15 percent in 5 polls hand-picked by the organization.

The history of the 15 percent rule shows why third party and independent candidates have struggled so much in modern presidential elections.

Ridings added that the League invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in the first presidential debate in 1980. In that election year, Anderson had polled as high as 24 percent, peaking in the summer, and was still around 15 percent in August and September.

Initially running as a Republican, Anderson received a boost in media attention after a Republican candidate debate in January 1980. During the event, Anderson, distinguishing himself from candidates like Ronald Reagan, voiced positions that didn’t always toe the GOP line, which broadened his appeal beyond the Republican base and increased his popularity with media elite.

By the first presidential debate, though, Anderson was getting less media attention, his name was not in the papers as much, and his popularity began to fall. Yet, because he still polled around the 15 percent standard, the League invited him to participate in the debate.

The history of the 15 percent rule shows why third party and independent candidates have struggled so much in modern presidential elections: without equal media time to compete with better financed major party candidates, 15 percent is a near-impossible hurdle to clear. The presidential debates are the biggest opportunity these candidates have to appear before American voters.

Now that the Commission on Presidential Debates has come under fire, it is possible that it will be required to change its debate criteria to be more impartial. Until then, Americans will likely never get a presidential election where the Washington elite give them more than two choices.