Why are There only 2 Candidates in the Presidential Debates?
It’s only natural that the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, and the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, should participate in tonight’s first presidential debate, but in fact there are two other candidates who qualified for the ballot in enough states that they could, technically, win the election.
Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is on the ballot of 48 states and Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is on 39 state ballots. In a pure democracy it would be considered a given that Johnson and Stein would join Obama and Romney on stage, but in the United States elections don’t work that way. That’s because the three presidential debates are run not by the government, but by a nonprofit organization, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The CPD was created in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties as a bipartisan—rather than a nonpartisan—effort.
The current co-chairmen of the CPD are Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael D. McCurry. Fahrenkopf is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, while McCurry was President Bill Clinton’s press secretary. Not surprisingly, Fahrenkopf and McCurry have set a high bar to keep out third party candidates.
To qualify for the debates, candidates must “have demonstrated a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results [as of September 21].” Of course it’s almost impossible to earn the support of 15% of the electorate if you don’t have regular access to network television or to the debates themselves.
For the record, the debates have seven national sponsors: Anheuser-Busch, The Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, Crowell & Moring, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), The Kovler Fund and Southwest Airlines. There used to be more, but in recent days the YWCA and Philips Electronics have withdrawn their support for the debates over the issue of third party access, as has British advertising firm BBH New York.
To Learn More:
Debate Commission's Own Hot Topic (by Harrison Wills, OpenSecrets.org)
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