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National debates need third party perspective
Last night, Governor Romney and President Obama faced off in 2012’s first Presidential debate, but absent from the debate were the two main third party candidates: former New Mexico Governor and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The barbs exchanged by the two men on stage followed a predictable pattern, with both playing to the middle and reiterating points from the stump speeches along the campaign trail. In this respect, the absence of third party candidates was strongly felt.
Stein and Johnson were barred from the debates because they failed to fully meet the criteria established by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Since 2000, the CPD has required candidates to poll above 15 percent in five selected national polls in order to be featured in the national debates. This is an absurdly high threshold, and one that prevents qualified but relatively unknown (In the latest CNN poll, Stein came in at 2 percent, Johnson at 4 percent) candidates from making an impression with voters. In 1992, Ross Perot participated in the first Presidential debate with between 7 and 9 percent support in national polls. He went on to secure 19 percent of the popular vote. His presence in the debate brought his ideas to a broader audience, shifting the national dialogue and providing a viable third option to voters dissatisfied with the two major parties.
Today, when a wide majority of Americans express disappointment with both the Democratic and Republican parties, the value of third parties in the national debates is self-evident. On a whole set of controversial issues, the Democratic and Republican parties have settled into a silent truce. For example, the broad and unjustified scope of drone attacks in Pakistan goes unquestioned by the Democratic and Republican establishment, but faces deserved skepticism from Stein, and, to a lesser degree, Johnson. Obama’s record on civil liberties—from the National Defense Authorization Act to his administration’s unprecedented war on whistle blowers—has gone unmentioned by the Romney camp. On this point, the debates could benefit from Stein’s perspective in particular.
Unless they can draw on vast personal wealth, as Perot could, third-party candidates will almost certainly not be able to garner more than 15 percent support going into debates. A more reasonable solution would be to allow candidates polling at a minimum 2 percent support to participate, as long as they have constitutional eligibility and are on the ballot in enough states to conceivably win. The threshold could rise for the later debates, so only candidates who have made a positive impression with voters are allowed to continue. Regardless of exact details, the Commission on Presidential Debates needs to establish criteria that aren’t designed to block alternatives to the mainstream candidates and constrict national debate.