What Happened in 2000?The CPD was subject to a barrage of criticism after it excluded Ross Perot from the 1996 presidential debates. As a result, the CPD decided to change the candidate selection criteria to a more objective threshold. However, Professor Neustadt, chair of the CPD's Advisory Committee, cautioned, "If the new criteria make it easier for more than two candidates to get into the debates, the major-party nominees may just refuse to participate, and then you've lost your best tool for informing the public." On January 6, 2000, the CPD announced that third-party candidates would have to reach 15 percent in pre-debate polls to receive an invitation to the debates.
The advantage of the 15 percent threshold is that it forces some transparency. If a candidate reaches 15 percent in pre-debate polls, the Democrats and Republican campaigns likely cannot exclude him or her.
However, the problems of the 15 percent criterion are many.
First, the 15 percent criterion disregards the allocation of taxpayers' 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? The threshold should not exceed five percent, which matches the clear intent of Congress.
Second, the criterion often directly contravenes the wishes of the majority of American voters. The CPD is relying on polling data to reject third-party candidates even when such data shows that a significant majority of Americans want particular third-party candidates included 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 included in the debates.
Third, the 15 percent threshold ignores the vast array of structural barriers that confront third-party candidates. Third-party candidates face the most discriminatory ballot access laws of any democracy in the world, a winner-take-all system that often considers them to be spoilers, significant financial contributions to the major parties, and scant media coverage. Thus, reaching 15 percent in pre-debate polls is virtually impossible. Indeed, no third-party candidate has done so since the inception of televised presidential debates other than self-financed billionaire Ross Perot, despite the electorate's increasing desire for third-party alternatives.
In sum, candidate exclusion has shifted from behind-the-scenes candidate negotiation to an overt numerical hurdle.
In 2000, five third-party candidates were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan attracted more media coverage and popular support than the other third-party challengers, and several polls demonstrated that the majority of voters wanted them included in the debates. On the eve of the debates, both Nader and Buchana had reached about four percent in the polls, and a FOX News poll found that 64 percent of eligible voters supported their inclusion in the debates. Yet, they failed to meet the 15 percent threshold and were excluded from all three presidential debates.
With Nader and Buchanan on the sidelines, Al Gore and George W. Bush participated in three presidential debates. The events attracted the smallest audience in the history of televised presidential debates. Much of the excitement took place outside the debate hall, where helicopters swarmed over 12,000 protesters outraged with third-party exclusion and where Ralph Nader was barred from entering a television viewing room even though he had a ticket.