Third-party candidates face uphill climb to get place on presidential debate stage

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Disaffected voters in both parties are calling for alternatives to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House, but third-party and independent candidates face a steep climb to just get on the general election debate stage.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) requires that candidates poll at 15 percent in five national surveys leading up to the three scheduled debates and that they garner enough spots on state ballots to chart a path to the White House.

{mosads}But that’s a catch-22 for third-party or late-deciding independent candidates: Most polling outlets are only testing match-ups between Trump and Clinton in their surveys.

“The game is rigged,” said former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who won 1 million votes as the Libertarian Party candidate in 2012 and is seeking the nomination again in 2016. “There’s no way a third-party candidate can compete unless they’re on the debate stage, and you can’t get there unless you’re in the polls.”

Johnson hit 11 percent in one recent Monmouth University survey, putting him tantalizingly close to the threshold. But he still has to improve on those numbers and then replicate them in other polls that don’t currently test his ballot strength.

Johnson said he’s pushing hard for pollsters to include his name, but he said he’s met with resistance from several outlets that have told him he’s not well-known enough to be included.

The CPD’s polling requirements are the subject of scrutiny every cycle, but the focus on potential third-party or independent presidential bids has spiked in 2016 with the rise of Trump, a political outsider leading the GOP primary, and Bernie Sanders, who has mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Clinton in the Democratic race because of his strength among independents.

In addition to third-party bids by the Libertarian Party and Green Party candidates, a group of conservatives, led in part by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, is rushing to recruit a credible Republican alternative to put up in the general election.

It’s possible that someone like Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, could leverage his name recognition to make a run at the 15 percent threshold in the polls. But debate experts believe it will be much harder to secure enough ballot access to qualify for the stage without a party apparatus.

“Every week that goes by is going to pose a larger and larger challenge to the plausibility of mathematical qualification to actually become the president,” said Baruch College political scientist David Birdsell, who noted that Kristol tweeted out state ballot access deadlines over the weekend.

That goes for polls, too. Some pollsters told The Hill they wouldn’t automatically include a candidate — even a big name like Romney — until they met certain ballot conditions.

A third-party or independent candidate has not made the debate stage since Ross Perot in 1992. There was no polling threshold that year. Instead, the CPD relied on recommendations from a panel of experts. The commission has since returned to using polling criteria.

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the CPD, told The Hill that while the group faces lawsuits almost every cycle, including one this year from Johnson and other third-party leaders, the criteria has been upheld because it is objective and nonpartisan.

With the first general election debate coming on Sept. 26, he asked, “If you are not at 15 percent, do you really have a realistic chance at being elected?”

Johnson has railed against the commission and its criteria, describing it as a rigged process designed by a closed cabal of Republicans and Democrats hell-bent on maintaining power by keeping insurgent candidates at bay.

But Birdsell defended the commission, arguing the high bar is by design.

“That’s a very, very difficult task, a dauntingly difficult task. And, in my view, it should be,” he said.

“We don’t want to treat presidential debates as the audition platform for the next-out party. If the Libertarians have not been successful at establishing a large base, they need to get that work done.”

The issue has taken on a new life in 2016 as polling data has borne out Americans’ frustration with the two-party system.

There has been a movement of people registering as independents, with several states now boasting pluralities — or in the case of Massachusetts, a majority of registered voters unaffiliated with any party.

A USA Today/Suffolk University survey from February found that only 34 percent of voters believe having two parties is enough. Fifty-three percent expressed a desire for three parties or more.

“It shows the dissatisfaction the American electorate has with the two-party system right now,” said Suffolk’s David Paleologos. “The viability of a third-party candidate is absolutely worthy of discussion right now.”

But because of the CPD rules, no third-party candidates can make the stage unless they are included in the polls.

While the CPD’s co-chairman said he can’t tell pollsters what to do, he said Johnson has a “legitimate concern if polling companies aren’t” including outside candidates who could reach viability.

“My view is they should include him,” Fahrenkopf said of future polls. “This certainly creates an obligation for some of the polling companies to look very close in including him to figure out if his [support] is real.”

The commission will release the names of eligible polling groups sometime around early September after consulting with experts at Gallup, he said.

Many pollsters release their data in conjunction with a media partner and decline to comment on their methods. But several interviewed by The Hill indicated they may include third-party or independent candidates in the future.

Ipsos, which partners with Reuters for a national tracking survey, said it has begun poll-testing Johnson and will have results shortly. If Johnson polls well or gains in strength over time, the firm could potentially make him a permanent fixture, Ipsos Vice President Chris Jackson said. A survey testing Romney is also forthcoming.

And Suffolk’s Paleologos, who partners with USA Today for a national poll that has been used by the CPD before, said his team has several metrics in place that could land a third-party name on his survey.

Suffolk requires a candidate to be on the ballot in half the states or states that add up to half of the Electoral College votes up for grabs. That means the Libertarian candidate will be included going forward. The Green Party is getting close, so candidate Jill Stein may also be included.  

But Paleologos said that even if the Never Trump conservatives can find a candidate to take the plunge, that person won’t automatically make the survey.

That candidate would still need to meet Suffolk’s minimum ballot requirements to earn a spot. That could be tough considering the number of upcoming state deadlines and intensive clerical work required to get on the ballot.

Some pollsters interviewed by The Hill believe the strength of third-party candidates can be overstated, even with so much frustration in the electorate aimed at the major parties.

Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray, who will continue to include Johnson and possibly add others, said many pollsters are wary of including a third option because many voters don’t follow through and vote for the third-party candidate on Election Day.

Still, Fahrenkopf said he could envision an insurgent candidate like Johnson garnering enough support to make the cut at a time when both likely nominees have poor favorability ratings.

“Who knows?” he said. “In this atmosphere that we are seeing out here among the American public, as we go down the road, he could get the 15, or somebody else could.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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