Allowing Liberty on the Debate Stage

For8276430669_35ecc1945a_z 25 years, the Gallup polling organization has been asking Americans about their political party “identification”, measuring how many of us consider ourselves to be Republicans, Democrats or independent.

The most recently reported results of that polling showed that, in 2013, 42% of Americans are political independents. Only 25% called themselves Republicans and 31% Democrats. In short, independents now outnumber each of the two “major” parties.

Likewise, a Rasmussen survey earlier this year found that a majority, 53%, of voters believe that NEITHER party in Congress “represents the American people.”

Yet, in 2012, when voters tuned in to watch or listen to the general election presidential debates, there were only two candidates on the stage: The Democrat nominee and the Republican nominee. There was no one in the debates representing the political independents who today comprise the largest block of American voters. No one.

Why is that? In the 2012 presidential election, there were FOUR candidates — not just two — whose names appeared on enough states’ ballots to potentially be elected in the Electoral College.  Those candidates were President Obama, Mitt Romney, Jill Stein and myself. But only the Democrat and the Republican were allowed to debate. That has been the case for the past 20 years.

The reason that only the Democrat and Republican nominees are allowed to debate is simple: The debates are entirely controlled by the Democrat and Republican parties. They own them—literally.  Oh sure, the nationally-televised presidential debates are sponsored by the official-sounding “Commission on Presidential Debates” – or CPD, as it is commonly known. Voters turn on the TV, see an official-looking debate stage, moderators usually recruited from the media, and hear that the event is sponsored by a “Commission”. It looks and sounds legit.

What the vast majority of those voters DON’T know is the CPD is a private organization created in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic National Parties for the express purpose of seizing control of the presidential debates.

Here’s how it works: This “Commission”, made up almost entirely of Republican and Democrat partisans, solicits funding for its activities from corporations and special interests. It requires the campaigns of the Republican and Democrat nominees for president to sign an agreement that they will ONLY participate in those debates sponsored by the CPD, thus foreclosing the possibility of any other organization sponsoring a debate that will actually be televised nationally. And…the CPD sets the rules not only for the debate formats, but for inclusion. In short, the Republican and Democrat Parties decide who is allowed to debate.

They do so by including a requirement that a candidate must achieve at least 15% support in five different national polls. And of course, the CPD chooses the five polls.

Obviously, applying such a high polling threshold is an intentional vicious circle. Without the hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds the two “major” parties can raise—and without the media exposure from events such as the debates, it is virtually impossible for any other candidates to reach 15% in opinion polls weeks before the election.

That one of reasons the CPD was created is to exclude other candidates is no secret. In 1987, when the CPD was announced, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee said it was unlikely that third party candidates would be included, and his Democrat counterpart stated that he personally believed other candidates should be excluded. And it is no coincidence that the polling requirement was raised to 15% after Ross Perot managed to be included in the 1992 debates — and other candidates were threatening to do the same.

With a majority of Americans now believing that neither of the two major parties represents them, this arbitrary and blatant exclusion of independent and third party candidates is simply wrong.  As the League of Women Voters said upon withdrawing its participation after the first CPD debates in 1988, the “demands of the two campaign organizations (Republican and Democrat) would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

The Our America Initiative, of which I am Honorary Chairman, is fighting to change the debates. We believe a fair solution is easy: Include any candidate who is legally eligible to be President and who has qualified for enough states’ ballots to potentially achieve a majority in the Electoral College. While a great many candidates file for the presidency, only the most serious and credible ones can qualify for that many state ballots. Believe me, having done it, I know how much support, organization and, yes, money it takes to accomplish that feat.

Liberty advocates are no strangers to exclusion. Congressman Ron Paul faced challenges from the Establishment at every turn in his campaigns. And just this year, the Republican National Committee is trying to “tighten” the presidential primary debates. The business-as-usual politicians and the special interests who depend upon them REALLY don’t want voters to see or hear alternatives to big government.

But Liberty deserves a place on the stage and in the public square—now more than ever. Our America is taking this fight for fairness to the CPD on two fronts. First, having tried to work directly with the CPD and the news media—and been largely ignored, we are preparing a legal challenge to be filed in federal court. Second, we are working to mobilize advocates across the nation to demand fairness and put an end to the arbitrary exclusion of qualified candidates from the debates. The CPD may try to continue to ignore us, but the financial sponsors can’t. In 2012, three different sponsors withdrew their support in response to the public outcry against the CPD rules.

It is never easy to challenge the status quo and those who want to maintain it, but ending the debate duopoly is worth the effort. Opening the debates to other qualified and widely-supported candidates will alter the political landscape . . . for the better.