Johnson, Stein unlikely to make first debate stage

Johnson, Stein unlikely to make first debate stage
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Third-party candidates are likely to be shut out of the upcoming presidential debate after being unable to parlay dissatisfaction with the major party candidates into higher poll numbers.

Libertarian 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 may have had an opening thanks to the historic unfavorable ratings of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDavis: The shocking fact that Mueller never would have accused Trump of a crime Trump says he would challenge impeachment in Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE. But their minimal support and a series of recent missteps will likely keep both candidates off the Sept. 26 debate stage and away from important time in the spotlight. 

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“I don’t see how he gets into the debates where he’s polling now as long as the debate commission holds to its 15 percent standard,” Geoffrey Skelley, a political scientist from the University of Virginia, said of Johnson, who has better attracted poll numbers and more publicity than Stein.

“It was always going to be really hard for one of them to make inroads, and Stein really had little chance.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates is expected to announce the participants of the September debate — the first of three — as early as the end of this week, a source familiar with the process told The Hill. 

The commission requires debaters to average 15 percent in five qualifying polls to make the stage. 

Johnson hasn’t hit double digits in any one of the qualifying polls, while Stein languishes in the low single digits. So it’s almost certain that neither will make the debate without a surprise change to the criteria.

It would be a huge blow, especially to Johnson, who raised more money over two weeks in June than he did during his entire 2012 campaign and has seen enough mainstream media interest to land two prime-time CNN town halls and endorsements by two daily newspapers.

He regularly talks up the importance of being included in the debates, and he declared to the press in Philadelphia that his campaign’s “whole future hinges on the presidential debates.” Stein participated in a separate CNN town hall. 

Based on the most recent qualifying polls that included third-party candidates — only three of five did — Johnson averages just over 8 percent support, compared to less than 3 percent for Stein. 

While Johnson has surprised pollsters with numbers that haven’t fallen off after the parties’ national conventions, that trend won’t be enough to get Johnson onto the stage under the current guidelines. 

Both third-party campaigns have challenged the debate commission, arguing they are on enough state ballots to warrant a place on stage. Stein’s campaign denounced the commission as a “sham” in a statement to The Hill, and Johnson’s campaign placed a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for their inclusion. 

Third-party candidates rarely make much of an impact, but Clinton and Trump are so disliked by the electorate that Johnson and Stein stand to benefit. 

But even with the most ideal circumstances, neither Johnson nor Stein appears to have a viable pathway to winning a state, let alone the White House. That raises the question: If third parties can’t make it now, can they make it in any election cycle?

“If minor parties get so little support in the election this time under these extraordinary circumstance, then there seems little hope that they’ll ever be viable in an election,” said Christopher Devine, political science professor at the University of Dayton. 

And recent high-profile foreign policy blunders have done little to help the candidates ingratiate themselves with voters.

Johnson took his biggest stumble of the campaign last week when he said during an MSNBC interview that he did not know what Aleppo was, a misstep that reverberated through the media. 

After one of the hosts explained that Aleppo was a Syrian city torn by the country’s civil war, he tried to recover by weighing in on the Syrian refugee crisis and said later that day he “blanked” on the name. 

“He really had a lot of organizational efforts leading specifically up to this point,” Devine said. “He stepped on all of that momentum he was trying to build.” 

But Johnson’s team told The Hill that his “honest and straightforward handling” of the flub “appears to have mobilized our supporters even more.”

Stein has also had her share of foreign policy missteps. She told reporters on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks she would not have ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden, preferring to capture and try him. Days earlier, she called for a “new inquiry” into 9/11 in a statement criticizing the 9/11 Commission’s findings.

Johnson has also been unsuccessful in attracting high-profile endorsements. Jeb Bush — who ran against Trump for the GOP nomination — never backed the campaign despite Johnson’s suggestion that he would. 

And 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney only lent a small hand, calling for Johnson to be included in the debates but declining to make a formal endorsement.

Stein hoped to woo Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Meghan McCain: Bernie Sanders supporting prisoners being able to vote 'bats**t insane' MORE supporters over to her side. But Sanders is publicly backing his former rival and cautioned supporters against voting for the Green ticket as a protest vote. 

While many voters are dissatisfied with the choice between Clinton and Trump, polls don’t show an exodus to the other candidates. Many political scientists believe that’s partly due to the candidates’ issue profiles, which don’t match the average voter’s.

The third-party candidates have largely focused on issues outside of the mainstream. Johnson has championed legalizing marijuana, while Stein’s views on the environment are significantly more liberal than the Democratic Party’s.

Richard Perloff, political science professor at Cleveland State University, said Johnson and Stein don’t highlight issues that voters prioritize, like the economy. 

“There was a window,” Perloff said. “They let it pass.”

“The lesson is for third-party candidates: You can do well, but you need to talk populist positions and you need a … very credible, charismatic champion for third party.” 

Both candidates appear popular with younger voters, one bright spot for the future. But for now, neither has been able to shake what’s seen as an inevitable choice between Trump and Clinton. 

Even those committed to the cause question whether voters would be willing to break from the two-party system en masse and prompt a fundamental shift in the institutions that hamper third-party efforts. 

“There’s no question that voters want more options, and the real question is, do the voters have the stomach for the work that it takes to create that,” said Evan Falchuk, founder of the United Independent Party and who ran for Massachusetts governor in 2014. 

“I worry about what the future holds for the ability for people to organize, because I think the power of this inertia that the system has created today is difficult to overcome.”