An independent can’t be President; here’s the real reason why
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The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Vande Hei is the latest in a long line of luminaries who have advocated to see an independent challenger to the two likely nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties this year. “Bring on a Third Candidate,” said the headline to Vande Hei’s article in the Wall Street Journal last week.

I couldn’t agree more.


Alienation in America is at an unprecedented level, and that the antipathy toward the political class and both the Democratic and Republican parties is stunning. A survey I worked on this year found that 78% of likely voters believe the two major parties are “too beholden to special and corporate interests to create any meaningful change.”  By 56% to 32%, voters said that they were so dissatisfied with Democrats and Republicans, they would join a third party if it had a chance of success.  

Multiple polls show a majority of voters saying they cannot imagine voting for either of the likely nominees of the two parties, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' Why does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants MORE. Both candidates are registering record unfavorable ratings from the American people, including from a significant portion of their own party adherents. In the history of polling, we have never seen a presidential race where both candidates started with higher negatives.  

In truth, more and more Americans don’t identify with either party. In early April, Gallup found 44% of respondents said they were independents, compared with 31% Democrats and 25% Republicans. As Chuck Todd put it on “Meet the Press” last year: “The largest party in the United States is no longer a party at all.” Yet if you watch the cable news networks and general political news coverage, you would never know that there was anyone in America who was not a partisan Democrat or Republican -- despite the massive evidence to the contrary.  

Americans may want a viable independent to run for president, but that sentiment is not enough.  The old adage “politics abhors a vacuum” is true, but vast obstacles make it incredibly arduous to fill the vacuum despite desire of a majority of Americans.

Those well-meaning advocates for another option can’t simply wish a strong independent candidacy into existence.  The reality imposed by the anti-democratic actions and rules imposed by the two-party duopoly is a formidable barricade to the success of such a candidacy.  

The Democratic and Republican parties, with full malice and intent, have acted to create a rigged duopoly. Neither wants a third challenger, and both have actively colluded to prevent one from ever having a chance. The parties instinctively understand that their key to political power lies in making sure that the choice is between the lesser of two evils.  One way is by making it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to compete for donations on a level playing field.  Right after the 2014 midterms, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress met in secret and then changed the law so that individual donors giving to the two major party candidates could donate $834,000 per year in total contributions through their parties while those giving to independents were limited to just $2,700.

There are obstacles, too, at the state level.  While Democratic and Republican parties are automatically put on the ballot, independents face different hurdles in all 50 states, including filing deadlines that are far too early, differing signature requirements, and other onerous regulations that make it difficult and costly to get on the ballot.

Then, there are the obstacles placed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which was established in the wake of Watergate to oversee the conduct of federal campaigns.  That FEC has become the most notorious, ineffective, inefficient and corrupt of all federal agencies.  It is composed of three super-partisan members – often undisputable political hacks – from each of the two major parties.  Because every vote is potentially a tie, each side is able to stymie any meaningful enforcement or regulation of the electoral system and to protect its side from any tough political sanctions.  In most cases, the two parties collude to protect the duopoly.  The chance that a challenge by an independent or third-party will be considered on the merits is about as favorable as the chance an African-American had of passing a literacy test in my native South when I was a child.  

But the worst blight on our democracy is the conduct by the unelected, unaccountable, secretive private organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD was founded in 1987 to ensure that the final fall debates – three for the presidential candidates, beginning this year on Sept. 26, and one for the vice presidential contenders, on Oct. 9 – “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”  In truth, the CPD’s real agenda is to make that mission the great lie of American politics.  

The true mission of the CPD is to deny independents and third-party candidates a national platform for their views and to their candidacies to be put before the American electorate. To make sure that the only two sanctioned choices are the nominees of the duopoly, the CPD is co-chaired by the former head of the Republican National Committee, Frank Fahrenkopf, and the former press secretary to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden must compel China and Russia to act on climate A leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 MORE, the Democratic activist Mike McCurry. Other board members are also party regulars and deep-pocketed donors. Some have been outspoken in their views that the CPD’s role is to perpetuate the hold the two parties have on our electoral system. As former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo) said when he was a commissioner: “If you like the multi-party system, then go to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia.”

The pretense that the CPD is non-partisan is a sham. Its board members openly endorse their party’s candidates, hold fundraisers for them, and contribute to them.  The commissioners know full well that it would be almost impossible for anyone to be elected president without the legitimacy of participating in the general election presidential debates. Since 1992, the CPD has been a bulwark against that ever happening. That year, the CPD was ordered by the Bush and Clinton campaigns to include Ross Perot who was polling only 8%, despite the Commission’s own rule requiring an independent had to have 15% of the public polls. With the exposure of the national debates, Perot ended up with 19% of the popular vote, the highest in the modern political era for an independent. From that moment on, the commission has been determined never to make that mistake again. Rules were changed accordingly. 

Under criticism for their previous behavior, the CPD’s board members said they would “seek input on various elements of the debates, including the criteria used to determine who will be invited to debate.” Many groups and individuals responded, most prominently the coalition of 49 distinguished political, military, corporate, and academic leaders who banded together as Change The Rule, calling for more reasonable criteria to make it possible for a significant third-party or independent candidate to be included in the debates.  The commission said that that its call for input would be “a transparent online process.”  Nonetheless, the CPD never posted the suggestions on its website, or even revealed who had made them.

Also, a year ago, a group called Level the Playing Field petitioned the FEC, which has authority over the CPD - (naturally) - for a rulemaking to change the debate criteria. Well over 1,000 comments were filed in the wake of the petition, and every one sought new rules except one group. That one group was CPD (sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up).

Last October, the commission announced its selection criteria for the 2016 debates.  Despite all of the criticism and serious proposals for change, the CPD, without even the pretext of a cosmetic change, simply announced that the qualifications for 2016 would be the same as in the past.

It was an act of reckless, arrogant disregard for American democracy. Indeed, some commissioners responded to the pressure and dissented. How many and why, we don’t know.  Inquiries produced only an official non-response and an admission by board members that they were bound by an oath of silence.  So much for an open process or any transparency by an organization that is funded by major American corporations, including Anheuser-Busch and Southwest Airlines, and operates with the sanction of the FEC. The political figures who sit on the CPD have created an organization even the Mafia would envy.  No wonder more than 80% of the American people believe that the political system is rigged – because it is.

As I have said before, we are closer to another revolution than any time in our recent political history.  We cannot continue to have a political process that most Americans say governs without their consent.  The rejection of the Democratic and Republican parties and their presidential candidates casts the shadow of a true political crisis across America. The first, urgent step is to open up the final fall debates beyond the nominees of the two parties. That would create a vital avenue for legitimacy that would allow a third candidate to be elected, or to influence the election.

Patrick Caddell was a major strategist in the Democratic party and pollster for many decades, including for President Jimmy Carter and other Democratic nominees. He is now a Fox News contributor.