Wild Cards Trump and Sanders May Mean Extra Debaters in 2016

Why America Loves the Debates
  • U.S. presidential candidates scheduled for three 2016 debates
  • Debate organizers ask tech companies to help liven up forums

Donald Trump’s insurgent and unpredictable campaign for president has the organizers of next year’s general election debates preparing for the possibility that at least one independent candidate may share the stage with the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Trump, who currently leads national polling of the Republican field, has suggested he may consider an independent run if he loses the party nomination and feels he hasn’t been treated fairly. Although Democrat Bernie Sanders has said he won’t seek election as an independent, he continues to draw significant support, polling about 30 percent against his party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

If either of them chooses to run independently and manages to draw at least 15 percent support nationally -- the threshold for eligibility -- the Commission on Presidential Debates would have to accommodate more than the two major party candidates for the first time since 1992.

“Fifteen percent in this crazy year we’re in, it’s not entirely inconceivable that someone may come along,” said Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the the nonprofit, nonpartisan group that organizes debates for the general election. “Our job is to make sure the candidates Americans are considering for president are there on the stage.”

Debate Dates

The commission, whose other co-chairman is former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, is planning now for the 2016 debates and has already set its ground rules. The first debate is scheduled for Sept. 26 in Dayton, Ohio, followed by an Oct. 9 debate in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. A vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 4 in Farmville, Virginia.

Trump is leading in national polls in the Republican primary race with 29 percent support, according to an average of surveys compiled by Real Clear Politics. He’s 14 points ahead of his closest rivals, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.

But he’s become a divisive figure in the party. As he came under criticism from many Republican leaders and other candidates for his statements on banning Muslims from entering the U.S., Trump yesterday touted a USA Today-Suffolk University poll that found some 68 percent of his supporters would vote for him if he ran as an independent. 

That would likely split the Republican vote. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is trailing in the race, responded on Twitter that by pursuing that path Trump would guarantee Clinton wins the White House.

First Contest

The first contest in the nomination process is the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 leading up to the party conventions in July.

In addition to considering the possibility of independent candidates, members of the panel are talking with technology companies including Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. about how to better engage debate audiences, including the possibility of taking questions from the public as well as the moderators, McCurry said.

“How you incorporate Internet-generated questions and how you get them to the moderator and what the role of the moderator is a point of discussion right now,” he said. “We’re looking at what is the best way to incorporate social media into the traditional structure.”

Asking Questions

Usually, two of the presidential debates are moderated with a journalist asking the questions and the other is town hall-style with voters who declare themselves undecided posing the questions. Candidates and political party organizations work with the commission on details down to the temperature in the room, lighting and how the candidates will be positioned.

The commission is trying to figure out how to make the debates more interactive, not just with viewers but also between the candidates, McCurry, who was a press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, said.

“The one thing we want more of is more interaction between the candidates,” he said. “How to encourage that and invigorate it requires a talented moderator and requires candidates who are willing to engage and get off the talking points they’ve prepared.”

Prominent politicians on the commission include President Barack Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, and former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican.

The last third-party candidate who participated in a general election debate was Ross Perot, who ran against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Perot also ran in 1996 but wasn’t invited to debate that year.

Critics of the debate commission, including Democratic political strategist Anita Dunn and Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg, have called on the group to make the debates more about the candidates and simplify them, saying the events have evolved into spectacles since the first televised presidential debates in 1960. Another group called Change the Rule that has Democratic and Republican supporters is pressing the commission to make it easier for independent candidates to be included.

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