Presidential debates, by now, are beloved for bringing us GIFs of delightful uneasiness, of (mostly male) figures of power stumped or gaffing or tripping up on words. But the reason we have these forums is educational: to help undecided voters make up their minds. In 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was founded, its website states, “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”A nonprofit, the CPD does not “endorse, support or oppose political candidates or parties.”
But a group called Level the Playing Field feels that the CPD does privilege parties: Democrats and Republicans. Level the Playing Field took out an ad last week in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the CPD’s role in maintaining “a two-party stranglehold,” when “62 percent of Americans are prepared to vote in 2015 for a credible presidential candidate who is not the Democratic or Republican nominee.” The ad blares, “TWO MEN & THEIR FRIENDS, crush any chance for an independent candidate for president to compete on a level playing field.” The men in question are Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates. They are well entrenched Washington establishment figures: Fahrenkopf once headed the Republican National Committee; McCurry was White House press secretary for former President Bill Clinton.
In September 2014, Level the Playing Field filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which sets the rules that the CPD must follow. The complaint argued that the CPD and its directors, “in violation of federal law, have used nonobjective, biased rules designed to exclude independent or third-party candidates from the presidential debates.” The CPD, Level the Playing Field asserts on its website, changetherule.org, is supposed to be nonpartisan and objective, “but the members are chosen by Democratic and Republican party insiders.” It “forces independent candidates to meet an impossible polling threshold only 7 weeks before the election.”
To shake up the debate game, Level the Playing Field has put forward an additional, alternative rule that it maintains is a much better indicator of support: a ballot access signature competition. According to the proposed rule, any candidate, party, or nominating process with ballot access in states that together have 270 or more votes in the Electoral College could tell the CPD of that access by April 30. (The group estimates that 4-6 million signatures would be needed). Whoever received the most signatures throughout this process would then take part in the debates, alongside nominees from the Democratic and Republican parties.
James K. Glassman, the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former journalist and publisher, sent out a note to journalists in support of the campaign the same morning the anti-CPD appeared in the Wall Street Journal. “Overwhelming numbers of Americans think the political system is broken,” he wrote. “I'm one of four dozen former and current government officials and military, business, and academic leaders who are separately asking the Commission to end its defense of the duopoly for the sake of the health of our democracy.”
Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, does not agree. “To make charges that somehow the system is rigged and we keep people out,” he said, is wrongheaded. He stresses that the criteria for candidate-selection gets reviewed every cycle. Fahrenkopf told Bloomberg that both he and McCurry, his CPD co-chair, have met with the Level the Playing Field group. “Every single member of the commission,” he said, “has a packet with their ideas in it.”
Not that the rules change so often. For the last four presidential elections, the requirements have been the same: one, the constitutional criteria—35 years of age and a “natural born Citizen”; two, the qualification to “appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority,” and, three, support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate “as determined by the average of five selected national public opinion polling organizations.”
It is this third rule that Level the Playing Field objects to most strenuously. Fahrenkopf defends the 15 percent balance, pointing out that the League of Women Voters’— which the two major parties elbowed out of the CPD at its inception—used the same figure, in 1980.
Level the Playing Field is less interested in changing the exact percentage point of the polling threshold than in the mechanism. In a letter sent to the FEC in January, it argued that merely changing the threshold “will not address the structural impediment to a truly fair and competitive presidential election." The letter was signed by former governors, senators, ambassadors, and executives, including Former United States Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair, Maine Senator Angus King, former Senator Joseph Lieberman, General Stanley A. McChrystal, historian Francis Fukuyama, and Glassman.
Fahrenkopf took a sporting attitude toward criticism, as might befit the ex-president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. Perennial third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have sued. “The only time we were not sued by someone who wanted to get into the debate was 2008,” he said. And even during that year, Fahrenkopf said, “we had as many complaints against John McCain as we did against Obama" over whether the two men met constitutional requirements. (Obama has been dogged by false accusations that he was born in Kenya while McCain was born in Panama where his father, a naval officer, was on duty.) “We’ve been successful in each of those suits before the Federal Commission,” Fahrenkopf continued. “That doesn’t mean we’re locked at 15. We’ll look at it and we’ll make a determination to modify.”
More proximate than the CPD’s presidential debates are the primary debates, with which the CPD is not involved. Last week, Fox News announced guidelines for the first Republican debate of the 2016 cycle, which it will host with Facebook. The network will limit the field to the top ten—or maybe 11—candidates according to an average of five national polls conducted prior. The same day, CNN announced that its debate, which will take place at the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library, will be divided into two parts: one for the top ten candidates, and another for the sorry remainders. To Fahrenkopf that makes a lot of sense. “How in the world are you going to get a meaningful debate with 19 people?” he asked.
In 2012, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was allowed into one Republican debate, but pretty much none of the rest. He blamed the media, and said he had been “blackballed.” Johnson told David Weigel of Bloomberg, "I think that at the presidential level, there should be some consideration given to the fact of whether you’ve been an elected official.”
In 2004 and 2008, former Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich ran for president, and was kept out of many important debates. He, too, blamed the media. "It's very easy to use the media holdings to try to suppress points of view that go against the profits of larger corporations," Kucinich said. "There are already a substantial number of people disgusted with the parties, and this adds to that."
There's more than sour grapes behind those arguments in the eyes of one more objective observer. Kathleen Jamieson, an expert on political communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, says the problem begins long before potential candidates must be winnowed to fit onto the debate stage (these being the occasions for which private entities like CNN, Fox, and the CPD set caps). “The visibility should have happened before that,” she said. “We need to ask, when there is a viable candidate from one of the other parties, an independent party: How do we ensure that their voice gets access early enough in the process to build a constituency?” The current system lacks sufficient mechanisms to help people hit the threshold. “If your ideas are worthy and you’re qualified to lead,” she said, “there aren’t enough plausible outlets.”
In her mind, “There is no venue right now that lets plausible candidates outside the two-party structure enter into primary debate without affiliating with the two parties which doesn’t actually do their ideology justice.” This is why, she said, Ron Paul was always an outlier. “He recognized that if he was going to have his voice heard, he had to participate as a Republican—although he’s not a Republican.” He did what he had to do, Jamieson said, for “the chance to be heard.”
Jamieson also points to a potential problem with the methodology of national polls, responses to which determine who will participate in debate: the way pollers ask the question. “The question is usually articulated,” she said, ‘If the vote were held today...’ This makes it “very hard for a person to pick the independent. People will say, ‘I don’t want to throw my vote away.’”
In Jamieson's eyes, the question instead should be, ‘Who is best qualified?’
Politicians still angling for inclusion in the primary debates seem less likely to lay bait their potential media hosts. Responding last week to Fox’s announcement over the first primary debate, Carly Fiorina’s supporters asserted their confidence in their candidate’s momentum. Steve DeMaura, the Executive Director of the super-PAC Carly For America, put out a statement expressing assurance that Fiorina will “meet and exceed whatever inclusion criteria Fox News and the RNC set.”
For the candidate’s part, Fiorina tweeted, “Glad @FoxNews released metrics for 1st debate. I'll look forward to making the cut and making my case to GOP voters on Aug 6th.” If she doesn’t, Fiorina might come to be more interested in "Changing the Rule."