The Third-Party Catch-22

The lack of coverage for Libertarian candidates isn't just bad journalism. It makes for bad politics as well.


News stories are supposed to report new information. By that standard, the recent Washington Post article "McAuliffe, Cuccinelli Race Drips With Venom" failed. It reported in detail that which everyone already knew, while leaving out a key detail not many do.

The piece quoted Virginia political scientist Robert Holsworth: "What I hear just from ordinary folks is, 'This is a tough choice – I wish I had a third choice. Are we really going to have to choose between these two?'"

The article then moved on with its main theme: the "negative tone" of the fight between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli. It never pointed out that voters actually do have a third choice: Robert Sarvis, who is running for governor on the Libertarian ticket, will be on the ballot as well.

It's not just The Post. National Journal committed a similar sin two days later. "Pity the Virginiavoter," began a piece on the "historically unpleasant" contest. The article quoted an unnamed voter thoroughly disgusted with the Cuccinelli and McAuliffe: "Jesus, who the hell am I supposed to vote for?" It also quoted Leslie Campbell, a 53-year-old homemaker: "I wish I had more than two candidates," she said. "I wish there was a third choice."

The article doesn't mention Sarvis once.

This isn't just bad journalism. It makes for bad politics as well.

Last month Cuccinelli declined to participate in a debate sponsored by the Virginia branches of AARP and the League of Women Voters. He called it a "left-wing, stacked debate." The groups chided Cuccinelli for ducking out. According to League president Ann Sterling, "all voters in Virginia deserve a chance to see the candidates who want to be their governor debate."

So the two groups invited Sarvis to participate, right? Wrong.

Their rationale: They invite only candidates who are polling at least 15 percent. (Virginia Tech, which will host an October debate, sets the bar at 10 percent.) According to AARP, this ensures only "viable candidates" debate  in "cases where many" candidates are on the ballot.

Ignore the dubious notion that three equals "many." Never mind that in 2011 the Republican Party managed to hold presidential primary debates with as many as nine candidates at once. Instead, consider the Catch-22 this puts third-party candidates in: They are denied the public exposure they could receive in debates until they reach a level of popularity they can scarcely attain without first getting more public exposure. They don't get into debates or news stories because their poll numbers are low, and their poll numbers are low partly because they don't get into debates or news stories. (Incidentally, The Times-Dispatch has run several pieces about Sarvis, including a front-page Sunday profile.)

It's bad enough for the AARP to take such a position. For the League of Women Voters, it is inexcusable. The group considers voter education essential to its mission. Well, then: A debate between Sarvis and one or both of the other two candidates would be highly educational. Clearly, many Virginians not only know nothing about Sarvis – they do not even know of him. Yet given that he is on the ballot, shouldn't they?

At least the AARP and the League can cite an objective standard. Not so the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, which will host a gubernatorial debate Sept. 25. It has not invited Sarvis, either. Why not? "It's our tradition," says a Chamber spokeswoman, that these debates "include the two major party candidates." Isn't there some other reason – any other reason at all? "Nope, no other reason other than our tradition to provide a forum for the two major party candidates."

That won't do – not when many Virginians are so fed up with the other two candidates but haven't even heard about the third one.

The only other potential rationale for excluding a candidate who will appear on the ballot is that the Libertarian's ideas fall so far out of the mainstream they must be shunned. This is wrong for two reasons.

First, Sarvis' platform combines the social views of liberal Democrats with the economic views of conservative Republicans. That's it. No conspiracy theories, no birtherism or trutherism, no alternative history or racial bigotry. And on a host of issues – from gay rights and marijuana legalization to school choice and deregulation – the Libertarian Party often has been not on the fringe, but on the cutting edge – with the other two parties playing catch-up.

That is a contingent argument. Here is an unconditional one: Even if debate organizers think Sarvis' views fall beyond the pale, denying him a place on the stage denies the voters the opportunity to hear and consider those views. The organizers have every right to do that if they wish. But if they do, then they cannot claim to be merely neutral facilitators of the democratic process. They are, instead, activists trying to influence the outcome of the election for their own ideological reasons.

Now that's a stacked debate.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.