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Party Members Only: The Bipartisan Scheme to Rig Presidential Debates

debates
Created: 20 September, 2023
Updated: 24 September, 2023
7 min read

Photo Credit: Adam Schultz / Flickr

The Fox News headline on September 19 read: “Longshot Republican presidential candidates scramble to make 2nd debate next week.” But while former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum struggle to qualify for the September 27 debate, their situation could be worse.

They could have the audacity to run outside the major parties. As much of a hurdle as Hutchinson and Burgum feel like they face, they have far easier paths to the debate stage than third party and independent candidates.

The Republican National Committee’s eligibility requirement for the first GOP debate was to poll at only 1 percent in national polling. For the second debate, it is 3 percent in two national polls.

The RNC added a concession that if a candidate didn’t poll at 3 percent in two national polls, they could hit that number in one national poll and one poll from an early state. There is also a fundraising requirement of 50,000 donors. 

The third debate will likely require a higher polling threshold to qualify. If it follows the pattern of previous presidential primary debates, the requirement will be 5% in national polls, which has some candidates concerned. 

US Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign has petitioned the RNC to focus the criteria more on early state polling than national polling since that would make it easier for him to qualify. For example, he has a polling average of 9 percent in Iowa.

If any of the primary candidates think 5% is a rough polling threshold, imagine if they had to get 15% in national polls just to qualify for the first debate – because this is what is required to get a third candidate in general election debates.

Primary debates are organized by the RNC and DNC. General election debates are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. One could say in the US political process membership has its privileges.

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But it goes deeper than that.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was founded as a collaborative effort by the Republican and Democratic Parties in 1987 to seize control over presidential debates, which to that point had been in the hands of the League of Women Voters.

The LWV challenged the bipartisan takeover of debates. Its leaders argued that giving the parties and their campaigns control of the debates would deny voters an opportunity to see the candidates outside a controlled campaign environment. 

The CPD catered more to demands from the major party campaigns over the structure of presidential debates, something the LWV said would “perpetuate a fraud on the American voter.” 

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Commission on Presidential Debates

The CPD has structured the debate rules to endorse a two-party contest between Republicans and Democrats. Only one candidate outside the major parties has appeared on the debate stage since the CPD took over debates – Ross Perot in 1992.

The debate between George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Perot wasn’t only the most watched debate in US history, but Perot went on to be the most successful independent candidate in modern US history, garnering 19% of the vote.

Yet despite running again in the next election cycle, the CPD did not invite Perot back to the debates. And in 2000, the CPD instituted new rules for debate entry, one of which said candidates must poll at 15% in 5 national polls hand-picked by the commission.

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It has since been all but impossible for a third-party candidate to make it on the debate stage.

Candidates like Burgum, Hutchinson, and Scott understand how difficult it can be to get just 3% in national polls, especially when most of the media attention is on two candidates, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

According to Brookings, Hutchinson and Burgum were mentioned daily in the media about 6 times from July 28 to August 11. Meanwhile, Trump was mentioned an average of 134 times during that period and DeSantis was mentioned an average of 75 times.

Trump and DeSantis are polling at the top, while Burgum and Hutchinson are now struggling to qualify for debates. 

Media outlets have appointed themselves as the ones who get to decide candidate viability, not voters. The same is true with third party and independent candidates – except for them it is much worse.

Candidates outside the major parties are seldom given media attention, and when they are it is not the candidates themselves, but party leaders and partisan talking heads telling the public each election cycle that “it is not the time to vote third party.”

“It is a wasted vote.”

“It is really a vote for [insert name of opposing party].”

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The same talking heads use these phrases verbatim each election cycle. And they will continue to say these things because their interests are to serve the two-party machine – even as voters clamor for better leadership.

But voters will never hear pundits and politicians say a vote for a lower performing primary candidate is a wasted vote. 

It also seems unlikely that the RNC would have uninvited candidates arrested or escorted away if they tried to attend a debate. Not obstruct the proceedings -- but attend, which is something the CPD has done to third party candidates in the past.

For the parties, they are fine with their members having choices – just as long as they can control the only two choices they give the public. It is okay to have 8 candidates on the stage for primary debates, but more than 2 candidates in general election debates – when the nation is paying the most attention – is unacceptable.

And the CPD has done everything in its power to endorse this since its inception.

The 15% rule has ensured that the parties get their way. It not only has kept third party candidates off the debate stage, but it has been cited by potential third party and independent candidates as the reason they won’t even run. 

In a previous interview for IVN, the late Peter Ackerman, an accomplished entrepreneur and election reform advocate, explained that “you have to know you have a viable path into the debates to even attempt to run for president.”

He also noted that for an alternative candidate to make up for the lack of media coverage, he or she would need hundreds of millions of dollars to build their national ID to get to the 15% polling threshold, something most potential candidates wouldn’t have.

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Ackerman spearheaded a lawsuit against the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in 2015 that challenged the CPD’s rules and alleged that the FEC acted “arbitrarily, capriciously, and contrary” to the law when it ignored complaints that the CPD violated federal statutes.

While the 15% rule was a focus of the lawsuit, it wasn’t the only issue addressed. The debate commission is largely composed of people with financial and/or political interests in the success of one of the two major parties.

Further, the debate commission could be in violation of federal tax law by claiming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status even though it has rules that favor candidates of the two major parties rather than promoting unbiased and objective criteria that promotes nonpartisan education. 

US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, whose name has been in the news recently because she is overseeing Trump’s January 6 trial, initially agreed with plaintiffs in 2017 that the FEC had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law

But she ultimately dismissed the lawsuit, and despite efforts by Ackerman and his group, Level the Playing Field, to appeal the decision, DC’s appellate court also dismissed the case

Debate access is essential for candidates to make their case to the public. Partisan candidates know this, which is why "longshot Republican candidates" are "scrambling" to get on the next debate stage.

A broad majority of voters have consistently said they want to see more candidates, not only on the primary debate stage but the general election debate stage as well. So, when voters watch or read about the next GOP debate, they should remember this question:

Why do we have so many candidates on the primary debate stage but only 2 candidates on the biggest debate stages?

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The answer is not complicated: The parties run the show, and as long as they do, voters will never see what potential alternatives that exist to challenge the two-party duopoly.

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