Third-party candidates in late push for debate stage

Third-party candidates in late push for debate stage
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Third-party candidates are racing against the clock to meet the threshold to qualify for the presidential debate stage.

The first debate isn’t until Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., but the campaigns expect a decision on who makes the cut in early September, giving Libertarian Party nominee Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonPotential GOP primary challenger: Trump's 'contempt for the American people' behind possible bid The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration Former Mass. governor takes step toward Trump primary challenge MORE and Green Party nominee Jill Stein about one month to hit the 15 percent national polling threshold.

The candidates and their campaigns are in an all-out sprint to boost their polling numbers ahead of that deadline. 

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Johnson and Green have surpassed one hurdle: Both are routinely included in the polls that will determine who makes the stage after being left out of many polls earlier in the cycle.

But reaching 15 percent in five national surveys leading up to the debate remains a steep climb for the underfunded and little-known candidates.

But GOP pollster David Winston said they have a unique opportunity this year, when both major party presidential candidates — Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Ex-FBI official: 'Links and coordination' with Russia happen everyday Ex-FBI agent: Americans should be 'disgusted' by Russian interference in Mueller report MORE for Democrats and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE for Republicans — have high disapproval ratings.

“You have two historically unappealing candidates in Clinton and Trump that a majority view unfavorably, so a lot of voters are looking for alternatives,” he said.

“There’s a willingness to look at the third-party candidates this cycle but it hasn’t hit critical mass yet, so unless Trump and Clinton dramatically tank, it’s going to be hard to get into that first debate,” Winston said.

Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, has approached the 15 percent mark in several surveys, reaching as high as 12 percent in a Fox News poll released this week. 

Johnson’s campaign has so far relied heavily on pushing digital content over social media and media coverage to get his message out.

Johnson and running mate Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, have participated in two prime-time town hall events on CNN.

The first, which was a let-down to many Libertarians, received fewer than 1 million viewers. The second, which took place Wednesday, was cheered by Johnson-Weld supporters and reached 1.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched cable news program in its time slot.

Now, the campaign is looking beyond the press to more traditional campaign activities.

Johnson and Weld will hold their first rallies of the cycle this weekend in Nevada and Utah. Additional rallies in Colorado and New Mexico are expected later.

The campaign is also set to release a national radio ad soon, and a national TV ad is in the works.

Weld has embraced the role of fundraiser for the campaign, boasting in the CNN town hall about having secured $1 million in commitments in one day. That would nearly match what the campaign had raised in the first half of the year.

And campaign manager Ron Nielson said small-dollar fundraising is also picking up. He said the ticket raised $500,000 in grassroots donations over a two-day stretch this month.

The Johnson-Weld campaign has more than 40 paid staffers now and nearly as many full-time volunteers.

Nielson is cautiously optimistic about their chances of making the first debate.

“We think we’re moving up right now,” he said. “We see a lot of support. We feel good. We think we can get above 15 percent.”

Stein, meanwhile, has a steeper climb.

She has topped out at 6 percent in the polls and is only at 4 percent in the RealClearPolitics average.

The liberal Green Party candidate is making a concerted push attract supporters of former Democratic contender Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Five former Obama ambassadors back Buttigieg Both sides were wrong about Mueller report, and none of it will likely matter for 2020 MORE.

She has grabbed headlines for being fiercely critical of Clinton, though in a new television ad running on cable news she savages both major party candidates.

“Donald Trump says despicable things but Hillary Clinton has a terrifying track record," she says. 

Stein will get her own CNN town hall on Aug. 17, which will be a big moment for her.

The third-party candidates suffered a setback on Friday when a district court judge threw out a case they brought against the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) challenging the polling threshold.

Johnson still has a separate legal challenge against the commission outstanding. The nonpartisan agency, which declined to comment for this story, could come under pressure as the debates near if Johnson or Stein are climbing in the polls.

Nielson, of Johnson’s campaign, lashed out at the agency in a statement.

“With Governor Johnson consistently polling in double-digits, we continue to believe that the CPD should make the right and fair decision to invite him to participate in the upcoming debates,” Nielson said.

“There is clearly an unprecedented desire for alternatives to the Republican and Democratic nominees, and voters deserve an opportunity to see and hear that there are, in fact, other credible, serious choices,” he continued. “The CPD could act today to end the two-party stranglehold on the debates, and that is precisely what they should do."

Pollsters interviewed by The Hill are doubtful either candidate will make the debate stage.

“I think it's unlikely, unless both major party candidates start leaching base support,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “While third-party candidates are set to do better this year than in most cycles, the 15 percent threshold is too high a hurdle.”

If they miss on the first round, there will be a vice presidential match-up in October and two more presidential debates that month.