By Amrit Singh
On Monday, September 26th, this interminable election season hits its penultimate crescendo, as the first of three Presidential debates will air, and everyone you know tunes in to see just how much crazier things can get. (The modest estimate is over 70MM viewers, though it's likely to be far more.) Many voters will seriously consider their choices for just the first time, and they’ll be wincing at a stage with just two podiums, populated by two historically unpopular candidates. (Look here at their favorability ratings — both under 40% approval. Ouch.) It’s enough to make people want to seek other alternatives, and in fact, that’s precisely what young voters are doing: After a primary season spent supporting Bernie Sanders, large numbers of millennials are opting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green candidate Jill Stein. In fact, 48% of millennials identify as independent. Democrats will tell you: It hasn't always been that way.
This shifting of political tectonic plates is creating a justifiable sense of panic in a Clinton campaign that needs the millennial vote in order to compete with Trump’s zealous (if inscrutable) base, but it’s not big enough to clear the fundamental barrier to entry to the all-important debate stage: For a candidate to earn a slot at the big dance, they must average 15% in five particular polls, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CDP), which is the "nonpartisan" entity which governs such things. At the moment, Johnson is closer to the cutoff with 9%; both he and Stein will not be allowed to participate in this one. And without the publicity boost of that first debate, chances are, they won’t make it up to 15% in time for any of the three showdowns.
But given how historically un-liked and untrusted these candidates are, leading voters to actively seek alternatives to the two major parties, why not allow third parties on the debate stage? Wouldn’t the democratic discourse benefit? Wouldn’t it make for more enlightened voters? Couldn't it help mitigate the salacious ad hominem warfare of Clinton/Trump and possibly shift the focus to, oh let’s say, policy and ideas?
If you think this, you are not alone. In fact, one recent poll says 76% of Americans want to see Johnson and Stein participate in the debate. It won’t surprise you to hear that amongst those people are Johnson and Stein themselves who, in arguing for their place on the stage, have highlighted some theories as to why they’re being denied admission.
In an op-ed written for the Guardian, Stein says "The CPD is a thinly disguised scheme to protect the two establishment parties from competition, and perpetuates a political system controlled by the wealthy and big business interests." She also notes that the CPD is staffed by people chosen by and/or vested in the Democratic and Republican National Committees, a claim which holds some water given that two co-chairs of the CPD have both made sizable donations to Trump and Clinton, respectively.) Further, Stein theorizes that the 15% limit is an arbitrary cut-off, put in place after the Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura — the former wrestler and erstwhile Predator hunter — qualified for his state’s debate with 10% in the polls, then delivered a performance which catapulted him into office. The CPD, says Stein, wants to avoid such an unsettling third party upset on a national level. Meanwhile Gary Johnson and his Vice Presidential running mate William Weld made the rounds on CNN and 60 Minutes to say that they are running "against the two party system" which "needs to be ruined."
Then there's the issue of the five polls themselves. Are they biased? What is their methodology? Do they even present third party candidates like Stein and Johnson as an option when collecting results? (Because if not, it's going to be hard for either of them -- or any other third party candidate -- to get to 15%.) This report at The Hill suggests that the polls, and the CPD, suffer from deep partisan bias. And that's a fact that could lead voters to suffer from deep political sighs. Whether this is your first campaign cycle or your 10th, the electoral mood this time around is alarmingly jaded. People just are not having it. And for many, the debates are shaping up to be another missed opportunity for real dialogue, or worse, another illustration of the prevailing political system's insider subterfuge.
The CPD has a crucial job: To regulate the participants and structure of Presidential debates that may be the single most important factor in many voters' ultimate decision. Clearly, they can't let that stage become a free-for-all. But given the practically unworkable and hyper-partisan nature of the two-party "duopoly," the appearance of structural bias in the CPD itself and the polls it cites, and the electorate's evident desire for more voices in the debate, it may well be time for a reboot of the debate machine. Three's company, and four's a crowd, but two could just be too cozy for this new millennium's teeming and vocal masses.
Facts Only is a column written by REVOLT Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh. If you're watching the debate, be sure to join our livetweet using #REVOLT2Vote, and tune-in to the network for a special one-hour live episode of Voices Of The Future the next day, wherein Amrit and a panel of young politicos and in-studio focus groups breakdown the biggest moments of the night. It's going to be yuuuge.