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Will The Commission on Presidential Debates Allow Kennedy on the Debate Stage?

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Created: 02 November, 2023
4 min read

A new national poll reveals something that will unnerve the Republican and Democratic Parties: An independent with national name recognition is polling nearly as well as Ross Perot did in 1992.

Fox News reports that when Biden and Trump (as the presumptive nominee) go head-to-head, it's a statistical toss-up with Biden at 47% and Trump at 46%. However, when Robert F Kennedy Jr is included, Biden drops to 39%, Trump drops to 36%, and Kennedy takes 22%.

Kennedy announced in early October that he was dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary and instead was going to pursue an independent bid for the White House. And regardless of how one views his candidacy, his polling is significant.

An independent candidate that can poll over 20% nationally not only proves that a large segment of the voting population wants a third option in elections, but it also opens up the possibility that Kennedy could appear on the debate stage with Biden and the GOP nominee.

That is, if the Commission on Presidential Debates honors its rules.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was founded by leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties in 1987 as a bipartisan effort to give their campaigns more say in the format of the debates.

The League of Women Voters, who hosted televised presidential debates up to that point, dropped its sponsorship in response in 1988. The League said it wouldn't help the CPD "perpetuate a fraud on the American voter" by giving the parties control over the debates. 

A third candidate has only appeared on the debate stage once since the CPD took over -- Ross Perot in 1992. The debate was not only the most watched in modern US history, but Perot's presence on the debate stage made the election more competitive. 

Perot ended up taking 19% of the vote. Yet, despite this impressive showing, the CPD did not invite him back when he ran for president again in 1996. Then, in 2000, the commission established new rules for debate eligibility:

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1. A candidate must be eligible to run for president;

2. A candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical shot at an electoral victory (270 Electoral College votes); and

3. A candidate must poll at a minimum of 15% in 5 national polls hand-picked by the CPD.

 

The most consequential of the rules was the "15% rule." It has all but ensured that a third candidate cannot get on the debate stage and has been cited by potential and viable third party and independents candidates as the reason they won't run for the White House.

First, it is difficult to gain traction in national polls when a candidate has little name recognition, and Name ID is hard to build when the media won't focus any attention on these campaigns.

When the press does cover independent and third-party candidates (even when its just a rumor), it is only to tell voters that "it isn't the time for a third-party candidate" and voting for anyone other than a Republican or Democrat is a "wasted vote."

Based on how the narrative as escalated over the last few decades, it is clear that voters will never experience a presidential election in which members of the press and political pundits say it's okay to vote outside the two major parties.

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These are players that operate within the manufactured two-party system -- and benefit from it.

Second, in order to make up for a lack of media coverage, independent and third-party candidates would need hundreds of millions of dollars to build their name ID themselves -- something most potential candidates wouldn't have. 

The 15% rule erected a tremendous barrier for candidates outside the major parties to make a name for themselves and have their voices heard. But ahead of the 2024 election, an independent candidate with name ID has managed to surpass it.

There are still several months between now and the first presidential debate. Things can change. A GOP nominee still needs to be named. The rhetoric against voting for an independent will intensify to scare voters into compliance. 

Polling numbers will undoubtedly fluctuate. 

But if Kennedy continues to poll at these numbers, will the CPD allow him debate entry, or will they come up with some excuse to move the goal post again on independent and third-party candidates to ensure debates remain an endorsement of the two parties' campaigns?

Over the last few election cycles, voters have expressed their overwhelming desire to see a third candidate on the debate stage. Will the 2024 election be the first time in 32 years they get their wish?

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