Ross Perot, center, after an October 1992 debate.

Photographer: J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

Why an Independent Doesn't Run for President

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and co-founder of the Journal of Democracy.
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Well before the Republican nomination was clinched by a populist amateur waging a xenophobic campaign, it was apparent that the American political system was in crisis.

Commentators tend to focus on the low favorability ratings of the two parties’ presumptive nominees. But neither of the two major parties is viewed favorably by a majority of the electorate, and a quarter of American voters have an unfavorable view of both parties. Moreover, the Gallup poll has consistently found half to 60 percent of the American electorate (most recently, 58 percent) embracing the need for a third party, because the Republican and Democratic parties "do such a poor job" representing the American people. Yet our electoral process continues to spurn these voters.

The two-party system in the U.S. was shaped by historical forces in the early to mid-19th century. The Democratic Party, founded in 1828, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854, are not giving today’s Americans the choices they deserve. As a result, far more voters identify themselves as independents than as Democrats or Republicans.

This antiquated system has been resistant to change for several major reasons. The U.S. electoral system, which chooses winners by simple plurality vote in individual contests, makes it difficult for third alternatives to break through, because voters fear wasting their vote on a candidate who will merely turn out to be a “spoiler.” Early state filing deadlines make it nearly impossible for an independent presidential candidacy to launch this “late” in the game. The campaign finance system confers huge advantages on the two established parties.

These rules are tough to change, because reforms would need to be enacted by Congress or by state legislatures controlled almost entirely by the two major parties, which would be challenged by electoral reform. In close to half the states, the voters can place an initiative on the ballot to change the rules, but that is also a difficult and expensive road.

One obstacle, however, would be easy to remove: the rule on presidential debate access formulated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, an unaccountable private group that deliberates in secret and is controlled by Democratic and Republican party loyalists. A candidate for the White House who can’t enter the three fall debates has no chance of victory. 

The commission's rules, which require an average polling level of 15 percent support in advance of the debates, ensure that no unaffiliated candidate who is not a billionaire could qualify. Since 1968, no American who did not run in the Republican or Democratic primaries has achieved 15 percent in the September polls. Under this rule (imposed after 1992), even Ross Perot would have been excluded from the 1992 debates.

Shortly before the first debate in October 1992, Perot was polling at 8 percent. He was only permitted onto the stage because both the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton campaigns determined it was in their interest to have him there. In the election a month later, Perot received 19 percent of the vote. The Texas businessman had forcefully raised the issue of deficit reduction, and, because the debates made him a viable candidate, both parties had to respond. The federal surpluses of the late 1990s owe a great deal to Perot’s presence on the stage.

With a third presidential candidate in 2016, the Democrat and Republican would be less likely to be driven to the views of the extreme wings of their parties. They would have to compete for votes in the center and address issues of concern to moderate voters. Even if a third candidate lost, the result would likely be more issue-oriented debates, less polarization, better prospects for governing, and more buy-in from a now alienated electorate.

Our system of debate exclusion is out of sync with those in other democracies in the world. The U.K. included seven candidates for prime minister in its parliamentary election debate in April 2015. In Canada last year, four candidates for prime minister debated in the first round and three in the second. Germany allows candidates for chancellor into the debates if they meet a 5 percent threshold for membership in the Bundestag. The field is narrowed in the second round to three debaters.

Three candidates competed in Taiwan’s recent presidential debates. In their recent presidential elections, four candidates debated in Ghana, and seven in the first round in Brazil.

It’s a disgrace that the U.S., the oldest democracy, retains rules that summarily rule out a third option. The Federal Election Commission continues to defend the fiction that the Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonpartisan organization. But over the past year, the commission, a two-party duopoly, has stonewalled all proposals for reform, running out the clock on this election cycle.

Mounting an independent candidacy is an expensive, exhausting proposition. Thoughtful and patriotic independents will not come forward under rules condemning them to irrelevance. This should be the last presidential election in which the voters are deprived of the possibility of a wider choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Larry Diamond at ldiamond@stanford.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net