The 15 Percent Barrier
Since 2000, the CPD has required that candidates reach 15 percent in national polls to participate in the presidential debates. The criterion is the greatest obstacle to more inclusive presidential debates. The Seattle Times editorialized, "The 15 percent threshold suits the two parties. It unduly restricts the American people."
The problems with the 15 percent criterion are many:
The criterion disregards the allocation of taxpayer funds and the intent of Congress. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, a party that receives five percent of the popular vote qualifies for millions of dollars in federal matching funds for the next election. Setting the criteria at 15 percent in pre-debate polls therefore raises the question: How is it that taxpayers can finance a candidate's campaign, and yet not be able to see or hear him? Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, said, "Simple rule: If you're going to give them taxpayers' money on the theory that they're credible candidates, then you ought to let them participate."
The criterion directly contravenes the wishes of the majority of American voters. Seventy-six percent of registered voters supported Ross Perot's inclusion in the 1996 debates, and 64 percent wanted Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan included in the 2000 presidential debates. Yet, they were excluded from the debates. The CPD is relying on polling data to reject third-party candidates even when such data often shows that a majority of Americans want particular third-party candidates in the debates. The CPD is posing the wrong polling question. If the CPD is going to rely on polling data, it should simply ask who the public wants in the debates.
The criterion irrationally requires candidates to prove their viability before the general public knows much about them. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. said that the 15 percent threshold "excludes non-major party candidates on the basis of polls from a public who has not yet had an opportunity to hear from those candidates." The CPD is essentially predicting, from premature poll numbers, who will not win the election, and excluding those candidates. But aren't the voters, not the polling sample or the CPD, supposed to determine who will and will not win the election?
The criterion ignores the vast array of structural barriers that confront third party candidates. Non-major party candidates face the most discriminatory ballot access laws of any democracy in the world, a winner-take-all system that often considers them spoilers, massive financial contributions to the major parties, and consistently scant media coverage.
The criterion marginalizes the contributions of losing third-party candidates. Most third parties crumble. But, fleeting third-party movements have made remarkable social and political contributions. Third-party candidates have introduced popular and groundbreaking issues that were eventually co-opted by the major parties, such as: the abolition of slavery, unemployment insurance, social security, child labor laws, public schools, public power, the direct election of senators, the graduated income tax, paid vacation, the 40-hour work week, the formation of labor unions, and democratic tools like the referendum and the recall. Excluded third-party candidates can't break the bipartisan conspiracy of silence on issues where the major parties are at odds with most of the American people.
Richard Marin, pollster for The Washington Post, wrote, "The objection to the 15 percent cut point is exactly right. It's absurdly high." Applied historically, a 15 percent criterion would have excluded every third-party candidate from every televised presidential debate, except for self-financed billionaire Ross Perot. In fact, even a five percent criterion applied to all previous televised presidential debates would have excluded every third-party candidate, except for John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.
In response to any suggestion that the threshold for inclusion be lowered, the CPD's first and foremost line of defense is, according to Executive Director Janet Brown, that "over 200 candidates run for president every four years. We can't let all of them on stage."
Yet, talking about 200 candidates is entirely misleading. Granted, roughly 200 people file presidential candidacy forms with the Federal Election Commission every election, including candidates like Billy Joe Clegg of the Clegg Won't Pull Your Leg Party. But of the roughly 200 third-party candidates that run every four years, how many were on enough state ballots to mathematically have a chance of winning the presidential election? In 1988 only two third-party candidates, in 1992 only three third-party candidates, in 1996 only four third-party candidates, in 2000 only five third-party candidates, in 2004 only four third-party candidates, in 2008 only four third-party candidates, and in 2012 only two third-party candidates.