Commission on Presidential Debates

Debate Commission: No Change to 15 Percent Third-Party Polling Rule

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a Republican and Democrat controlled group that establishes criteria and rules for U.S. general election presidential debates, announced last week that it will not change its controversial 15 percent polling requirement for independent candidates.

The rule is widely seen as protecting the two-party duopoly by having the effect of preventing third-party candidates from exposing their views to voters in televised presidential debates. Only the wealthiest candidates or highest-profile celebrities could afford to purchase the type of nationwide ad campaign that would produce a 15 percent reading in national polls without first having the exposure of the debates themselves, creating a Catch-22 situation for the one or two serious third-party candidates that obtain ballot access in enough states to win the presidency each election cycle.

[RELATED: DONEGAN: If GOP Debate Stage Can Fit 11, Let Third Parties In General Election Debates]

In its announcement of the criteria for the 2016 general election debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates wrote:

[pull_quote_center]CPD Co-Chairs Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael D. McCurry noted that, ‘We are mindful of the changes in the electorate and the large number of voters who now self-identify as independents. We believe our candidate selection criteria appropriately address this dynamic. The CPD’s criteria make participation open to any candidate, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation or status as an independent, in whom the public has demonstrated significant interest and support… It is appropriate for a debate sponsor to take the campaign as it finds it in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. The CPD’s debates are not intended to serve as a springboard for a candidate with only very modest support. Participation in the debates is determined by the level of public support a candidate enjoys as Election Day approaches.'[/pull_quote_center]

Though the Commission’s claim that the rules are evenly applied to independents and major parties is technically true, it neglects critics who say that the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries- which are funded by all taxpayers, including independent voters- serve as an extraordinarily valuable promotional opportunity for major parties in obtaining the minimum 15 percent support needed to qualify for the debates.

[RELATED: Pollsters Criticize Use of Polling Minimums to Exclude Candidates from Debates]

Election law expert Richard Winger of Ballot Access News pointed out the fact that the 15 percent rule is currently being challenged in court: “Two lawsuits are pending against the 15% rule, both in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. They are Level the Playing Field v Federal Election Commission, and [Gary] Johnson v Commission on Presidential Debates. The first one depends on campaign finance law and the second on antitrust law.

According to the Libertarian Party, a senior adviser to Gary Johnson’s Our America Initiative called the CPD’s decision to continue employing the 15 percent rule “disappointing but certainly not shocking.”

Meanwhile, WFPL notes that questions are being raised this week about the accuracy of telephone polls after Kentucky Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin overwhelmingly won in a stunning upset despite trailing his Democratic opponent Jack Conway in pre-election polls.

In related news, Public Policy Polling included former Senator from Virginia Jim Webb as an independent candidate against Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in its Nov. 4 general election polling for Iowa and found Clinton at 41 percent support, Trump at 40 percent, and Webb trailing with 9 percent.

The Truth in Media Project recently released a Consider This video highlighting the fact that independent voters now outnumber Republicans and Democrats. Watch it in the below-embedded video player.