Candidate Meeting Polling Threshold Denied Spot in Democratic Debate

Created: 05 October, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
3 min read

Independent candidates for president aren't the only ones who have to deal with rigged debates and a flawed system that uses polls to determine access to the stage.

In a new post on his blog, Harvard professor and candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, Larry Lessig, responded to emails from supporters who asked him, "What's the deal with the debates?"

Lessig explains:

"To get into the debates, the Democratic Party has said a candidate must get 1% in 3 national media polls within 6 weeks of the debate. The first debate is October 13. The first national poll (PPP, which is not one of the counted media polls) found me at 1% at the beginning of September. But since the PPP poll, none of the qualifying polls have included my name in their polling. We've been trying to understand why, and a number of people have suggested it is related to the DNC."

Lessig has called on current DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to "request that declared candidates with a plausible claim to qualify be polled." Lessig scheduled a call with the DNC chair last Friday, which she subsequently cancelled and apparently has yet to reschedule.

The exclusion that Lessig faces from the Democratic Party is hardly different from what Republican candidates with lower polling numbers are facing heading into their next primary debate, where a 3 percent polling threshold will be used. These arbitrary polling thresholds are all within the poll's margin of error, and are a terribly flawed way to pick who has access to the debate stage.

Independent candidates face an even more impossible polling hurdle. Since 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates has used a 15 percent polling threshold that bars non-major party candidates from the stage. Since 1960, no candidate who did not participate in a primary has ever scaled that 15 percent threshold - not even Ross Perot, who was polling at just 8 percent in September 1992.

If highly qualified candidates are not permitted on the debate stage, it is unlikely that the American public will ever become aware of the fact that they are running. This is why you will never see an independent candidate on the debate stage for as long as you live, and as long as your children live, if the CPD's rule is allowed to stand.

The CPD, which is supposed to be nonpartisan (not bipartisan), is using admittedly flawed polling as an excuse to exclude credible independent candidates from inclusion in the televised debates. Potential candidates are all too aware that if they aren't able to meet arbitrary polling thresholds and participate in these debates, their chances at being competitive in primary or general elections evaporates. So they just don't run.

Professor Lessig is, by all definitions, an outsider:

...I'm not a politician, but neither are the three leading candidates on the Republican side. I'm not sure why the Republicans get a chance to choose an outsider, but Democrats don't. - Larry Lessig

After the first Republican primary debate, Carly Fiorina's campaign fought to ensure that she made it to the second "Prime Time" debate last month. It is widely accepted that her meteoric rise in the polls over the past several weeks is due almost exclusively to CNN's last-minute rule change, which made space for her on the debate stage.

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Lessig wants the same chance to gain the exposure that is giving Fiorina her current lift in the polls regardless of his current poll numbers, because he understands that this is his only shot at representing the Democratic Party on the presidential debate stage next fall.

But, what about the 43 percent of Americans who don't feel represented by Democrats or Republicans?

Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and current co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said this summer that "veryone deserves representation. The argument is over what is the criteria for people to qualify to be in the debates."

He's right, but the CPD's actions to this point speak louder than Mr. Fahrenkopf's words, as they have held fast to arbitrary barriers to entry that will likely continue to prove impossible for any Independent candidates to overcome.

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

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