Editorial Board

Presidential Debates 2016: Bigger, Broader, Better

Why should only Democrats and Republicans be allowed to have all the debating fun?

There's room at that table.

Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Most Americans want a third party, which probably explains why leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have conspired for the past three decades to exclude third-party candidates from the presidential debates. Never mind how unlikely a third-party victory may be, they say. Keep those interlopers away from the cameras!

Now some eminences grises are fighting back, and for good reason. In a media-saturated political market, presidential debates may be less important to voter education than they once were. But they are virtually the only opportunity in the general-election campaign that voters have to see the candidates side by side -- and they are a crucial way for independent candidates to present themselves as viable contenders.

The two major parties have effectively run the debates since 1987, when they joined forces to form the Commission on Presidential Debates. (In doing so, they pushed aside the group that had been doing an admirable job: the League of Women Voters.) From the beginning, the commission made no secret of its hostility toward third-party candidates. In 1992, the commission included Ross Perot mostly because neither George H.W. Bush nor Bill Clinton objected. Four years later, when both party candidates agreed to keep Perot out of the debates, the commission adopted a tortured rationale for excluding him.

For the 2000 election, the commission adopted a rule that excluded Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, as well as every third-party candidate since: Only those who garner at least 15 percent support in five public opinion polls taken two months before the election are eligible to participate. Under this standard, Perot -- who won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and made useful and entertaining contributions to the national dialogue -- would have been excluded from that year's debates.

This debate duopoly should be broken up. The group now pushing for a more inclusive eligibility standard, however, has suggested a flawed alternative. Under its proposal, a non-major-party candidate who qualifies for the ballot in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes would become eligible to join the debates. If two or more candidates reach that threshold, only the one who collects the most signatures would be eligible.

Thus the group's proposal pulls off a neat trick: It is both too permissive, by granting eligibility to a candidate who may be on the ballot in only a dozen states, and too restrictive, by eliminating the possibility that more than one outsider candidate could participate. 

There is no perfect eligibility threshold. There is, however, a general principle that would serve the public well: All candidates should be treated equally, but not each debate should be. With each successive debate, the bar for participation should be raised -- to ensure that candidates continue debating only if they have or gain traction with voters. So the first debate might include all candidates who have qualified for the ballot in a majority of states, with the potential to win 270 electoral votes. The second debate could include only those candidates who receive at least 5 or 7 percent in polls. In the third debate, the polling threshold could be raised to 10 or 12 percent.

Two months before the 1998 gubernatorial election in Minnesota, polls showed Jesse Ventura receiving only 10 percent of the vote. Yet he was allowed to take part in the debates, and he went on to win. That’s the nightmare scenario for the major parties -- but it clearly benefited voters. And aren't they the ones who the debates are for?