According to the conservative Media Research Center's analysis of this year's race for governor, coverage of Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has been "viciously negative," with 24 critical stories for every uncritical one. Coverage of the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, hasn't exactly been glowing: By the MRC's estimate, negative stories about him outnumber positive stories three to one.
But Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, probably would switch places with either of them in a heartbeat. He barely gets mentioned at all – garnering only about 2 percent of all coverage – even though his name will appear on the ballot alongside the other two.
Take a recent piece in Politico. "Terry McAuliffe, Ken Cuccinelli Tax Plan Sparks Local Revolts" explains how the candidates' desire to lower or eliminate three unpopular businesses taxes is causing heartburn among local government leaders. It begins by noting that "in one of the nastiest political battles of 2013, there's one thing Virginia's gubernatorial candidates agree on." Sarvis agrees with the other two candidates about those taxes, too. Yet the Politico story never mentions him.
Ditto The Washington Post, which recently editorialized about "Virginia's Dispiriting Election." The newspaper thinks it would be "nice if the candidates for governor, who have devoted prodigious amounts of time and energy to tearing each other to pieces, expended equal effort in defining the issues that should matter to Virginians." Alas, "the two candidates . . . have expended so much time and energy impugning each other's qualifications that voters would be excused for having no sense of the stakes in the election." The two candidates? What about the third one, who is running a campaign based on issues rather than attacks? Nary a word.
You could argue there is no point in covering Sarvis because, after all, he has never held elective office. But neither has McAuliffe. You could argue Sarvis scarcely registers in the polls. But that just sets up a vicious circle: Sarvis gets so little coverage because he polls poorly – and he polls poorly because he gets so little coverage.
Besides, in order for Sarvis to poll well, the pollsters actually have to ask about him. But they often don't. Last month Quinnipiac put McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli by six points. The poll omitted Sarvis entirely. The same goes for a Rasmussen poll several days ago, which asked: "If the election for governor of Virginia were held today, would you vote for Republican Ken Cuccinelli or Democrat Terry McAuliffe?" It also asked if the two candidates' campaigns were positive or negative, and which one of them was the more ethical of the two. And: "Which candidate do you trust more to deal with government spending: Ken Cuccinelli or Terry McAuliffe?"
Rasmussen claims a margin of error of only 3 percentage points. That might be accurate from a methodological standpoint, but it seems hard to swallow in a broader sense when it omits a third option who has garnered from 7 percent to 10 percent in other polls. Asking people whether they buy Coke or Pepsi is not going to reflect the actual shopping habits of people who buy 7-Up.
The blackout of third-party candidates by pollsters and the media (to which, by the way, The Times-Dispatch has been an exception) has other consequences as well. For instance, it can keep them out of debates. Sarvis already has been absent from the first gubernatorial debate, held in late July in Hot Springs. He also would have been excluded from a debate hosted by the AARP and the League of Women voters, which set participation at 15 percent. Cuccinelli declined to participate, so that event was canceled.
Later this month the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce will hold another debate. A spokesman says it will exclude Sarvis for "no other reason other than our tradition to provide a forum for the two major party candidates." That leaves just one last debate, to be held October 24. It will be sponsored by Virginia Tech and WDBJ-7. The threshold for that debate is, or at least was, 10 percent.
Sarvis reached that threshold in late August, in a poll by the Emerson College Polling Society. (If you're skeptical of Emerson, note that its results are in line with those from the better-known Public Policy Polling, which gave Sarvis 9 percent.) Does this mean he will be invited to the October event? A spokesman for Virginia Tech said the "details of the debate in terms of format, participants, etc." are in the hands of WDBJ-7's news director, Kelly Zuber.
Zuber has ignored repeated inquiries.
Others, commendably, have not. Rasmussen says that it is seeing "a shift to a named third-party candidate, in this case Mr. Sarvis, so we will be including his name in our subsequent surveys of this race."
Perhaps the press could trouble itself to do the same.
This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.