The news came down last week: Gary Johnson will be excluded from the first presidential debate. Not as a product of a nefarious conspiracy, but because he didn’t meet the clearly outlined threshold of 15% in the polls. Fair is fair, as far as that goes. The question is whether a 15% threshold is a good criterion and, if not, what would be a better one?
Unfortunately, there are no unassailable answers to these questions. It’s a subjective judgment that balances two competing issues.
The first issue is that third party candidates distort outcomes in systems such as ours. They aren’t an issue where voters can delineate their choices either with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or a top-two runoff election. We not only don’t have either of those things, but we have no way to nationally institute them even if we wanted to, except through a very unlikely constitutional amendment. There are numerous examples in the US and abroad of people who apparently did not have majority support getting into office simply through opposition divided between multiple candidates.
Giving independent and third party challengers a debate platform would likely cause more problems by giving credibility to candidates whose only influence is to change the outcome between the top two candidates. That’s good for the person who wins in this event, but that’s not how we want elections decided.
The second issue, though, is that we don’t want to give the incumbent parties too much power. The system itself does a good job of limiting the number of viable parties to two most of the time. While a two-party system does not bother me, I am moderately troubled by the two parties being hard-coded in, rather than as part of a natural duopoly. Without the ability of new parties to credibly form and challenge current ones, parties can become excessively unresponsive both to their voters and outside voters. Primaries can help mitigate this, but they only go so far.
In Canada, outside parties have forced the two major parties to either adapt or die. The Progressive Conservatives became so inept that they were essentially overtaken by a “third party” and forced to merge with it as the minor partner. It appeared for a while that the New Democratic Party was going to do the same to the Liberals, but they realized it in time. In both cases, though, the PC’s and the Liberals were facing not just another lost election, but irrelevance or extinction. This forced them to improve. Dynamism is a good thing.
So I want to avoid giving third parties enough influence to throw elections, but at the same time allow the incumbent parties to be challenged and, if they respond poorly, replaced. I want to give third parties a platform to grow their support, but I also don’t want them to distract from the viable candidates when it comes down to it.
My preference is for an escalating threshold. The first debate is somewhat easy to get into. The second debate harder, and so on. By the end, the only people in the debate are those with a chance to win. If you’re an outside candidate and can’t grow your support, you lose your spot. If you can grow your support, then we’re simply going to have a distorted outcome. I don’t like it, but I don’t like preventing it simply by starving credibility to anybody but the two major parties.
Ideally, I prefer 5%/10%/15%/20% thresholds. That first one may be a little too low, however, and I’d be fine with a 10% threshold. I consider 15% at the outset to simply be too high. If you can’t get to 15% after the national publicity of a debate, though, I feel like you’ve had your chance to upend the system and the system was just not yet ready to be upended. The 15% threshold is a good way to leave out all but the most instantly viable candidates, most likely because either they are personally wealthy or entrenched in the system. That ends up lending too much power to the status quo and its stakeholders.
Which, one gathers, is kind of the point.
Ultimately, the Debate Commission was set up by the parties. A lot of people argue that makes it a private affair and freedom of association and whatnot. This is true, though that doesn’t relieve it from being criticized. And if they were so inclined, states could make their presence a requirement for ballot access. You couldn’t make them actively participate, but they’re not going to go and fiddle with their iPhone. There’s a reason the candidates almost always agree to debates even when they have little strategic reason to do so. Boycotts have their own costs.
Reforming the debates is an uphill climb, given the extent to which the people making the determinations are beneficiaries of the system as it exists. Unlike other system-opening measures which run into the same roadblocks (such as IRV), debate participation does at least does have a degree of public support.
So I hope that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein give them hell, because in my view they deserve it.
Feature Image by Gage Skidmore