Gary Johnson

Yes, Gary Johnson Could Make It Into the Debates. Here's How.

A step-by-step guide to how the Libertarian Party nominee might make it onstage.


Gary Johnson
Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Fifteen percent is the magic number Libertarian presidential candidate and former governor Gary Johnson needs to reach to earn his voice in the 2016 election.

By capturing the support of 15 percent of voters in national public opinion polls, Johnson could join the major party's presidential candidates on the primetime debate stage. With both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates disliked at historic levels and a rising share of political independents frustrated with the two major parties, this is the year a third-party candidate like Johnson has a realistic chance of getting onto the debate stage.

What would it take?

Johnson would need to receive an invitation to participate in the debates from the Commission on Presidential debates (CPD), a private, non-partisan, 501(c)(3) organization that has sponsored the general election presidential debates since 1988. The CPD is not a government entity, nor does it receive government funding. But it is a creation of the two major parties, co-chaired at its inception by both the Republican and Democratic parties' national chairman.

The CPD establishes objective eligibility criteria in advance—compliant with regulations enforced by the Federal Election Commission—that all candidates must meet, including the Democratic and Republican candidates, to be invited to participate in the debate.

The CPD's 2016 debate eligibility criteria, announced last year, are as follows:

Besides being constitutionally eligible, the candidate would need to appear on a "sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College." Currently the Libertarian Party has ballot access in 32 states and is confident about getting on the remaining 18.

Next, Johnson would need to have the support of at least 15 percent of "the national electorate" as determined by the average of five selected national public opinion polling organizations' most recently publicly reported results, at the time eligibility is determined.

The CPD board, with the advisement of Dr. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, determines which five polling organizations will be used. The CPD board selects polling organizations based on its assessment of poll methodology quality, polling frequency, size of sample population, and the reputation of the polling organization.

So far, the CPD has not reported when it will reveal the five selected polling organizations for 2016, but will likely do so before Labor Day. The CPD has announced it will formally extend invitations to participate in the first debate after Labor Day and before September 26th, when the first debate will be held at Wright State University.

Although the CPD has not yet released the selected polling organizations it will recognize in 2016, we can look back at those included in 2012 for an idea: ABC/Washington Post, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, CBS/New York Times, Fox News, and Gallup.

The key for Gary Johnson is to convince the major polling organizations to include him in their polls—and to continue to do so . He may be in luck. The 2012 organizations that are polling the 2016 election have included him in their match-ups against Clinton and Trump, with Johnson garnering: Fox (12 percent), CBS (11 percent), NBC/Wall Street Journal (10 percent), ABC/Washington Post (7 percent), an average of roughly 10 percent. Other highly regarded pollsters such as CNN/ORC (9 percent) Quinnipiac (5 percent) and Monmouth (9 percent) have also asked about Johnson this cycle, although they were not included in CPD's 2012 recognized polls.

He's not there yet. But Johnson absolutely has a chance of getting to 15 percent in the polls. Let me explain why.  

First, NBC/WSJ polls are finding voters in 2016 are more open to expressing interest in a third-party candidate compared to 2012 and 2008. In 2016, 47 percent of Americans say they would consider voting for a third party candidate up from 38 percent in 2008 and 40 percent in 2012.

Second, a Reason-Rupe poll found that 48 percent of Americans say they'd be willing to vote for a candidate who described him or herself as "conservative on economic issues" and also "liberal on social issues," which is how Gary Johnson self-describes.

And third, in 2012, a Reason-Rupe poll found that in a hypothetical three-way race between Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul, Paul got 17 percent of the vote. And Ron Paul wasn't even running as a third-party candidate and was far better known. Back in 2012, 73 percent of voters had an opinion of Ron Paul—far more than the 32 percent of voters who've formed an opinion of Johnson.

To be sure, Americans are far more likely to express support for minor party candidates in polls than they are at the ballot box. However, public polling is what matters for getting into the debates. These data indicate there is an appetite for a candidate like Gary Johnson, and wherever his ceiling may exist, it's likely higher than 15 percent. 

If Johnson is on the eligibility cusp, then the CPD may exercise subjectivity in determining whether or not he is allowed to participate in the debates. For instance, it is unclear how the CPD defines "support…of the national electorate" since in practice pollsters have different methods of determining who likely voters are and thus what is the national electorate.

Also, it's unclear if the CPD would measure Johnson's level of support as a function of a three-way race with Trump and Clinton or a four-way race that also includes Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein. The RealClearPolitics average currently finds Johnson with 8.1 percent in a three-way race and with 7.8 percent in a four-way race. One can imagine a scenario where Johnson achieves the 15 percent average threshold in three-way races, but not in 4-way races. If so, it would be up to the CPD's discretion to determine if Johnson meets the eligibility requirements.

What's the incentive of the CPD? It important to point out that the CPD has made great efforts to put forth transparent, concrete and predetermined eligibility criteria well in advance of the debates. The CPD came under scrutiny in the 1990s when it used a broader set of more subjective criteria when deciding whether to invite third-party candidate Ross Perot to the debates. Since then, its board has made efforts to articulate clear eligibility requirements in advance that apply to all candidates.

Nevertheless, one must keep in mind the fact that the CPD was established by the two major parties and initially co-chaired by both the Republican and Democratic parties' national chairman. At the time it was established in 1987 the New York Times reported that both the Democratic and Republican co-chairs individually felt third-party candidates should not be included and thus the CPD would "not likely … look with favor on third-party candidates" and likely exclude them from debates. Because why wouldn't they?

Those who have a vested interest in one of the two major parties have little incentive to allow further competition on the main debate stage. Thus, in the event that a third-party candidate like Johnson finds himself on the edge and subjective judgment must be exercised, Johnson may find himself excluded. However, the intense dislike of Trump, particularly among partisan elites, may lend itself to favor Johnson ultimately getting into the debates this year.

Sam Henrick contributed to this research.

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  1. He can’t make the debates. If he somehow manages to meet the current requirements, they will simply change the rules.

    1. And again, given his performance on CNN, I’ve yet to see something indicating the debates is a good idea.

      1. Just show up with a shirt that says “I’m with Stupids” and arrows pointing at Trump and Hillary. Then shut up and don’t say anything. All he has to do.

      2. If GayJay makes it to one debate it will be his last. His best strategy is to change his name to “none of the above ” and hide till the election.

    2. The Rs and Ds don’t actually need to change the rules as written — just like they’ve done with Constitution, they can simply reinterpret the rules to mean what they want them to mean.

      For example, in the unlikely event Johnson gets to 15% plus in several polls, they exclude those polls from the five selected for the average. In the even more unlikely event Johnson starts getting 15% in every poll that includes him — they exclude polls that include him. Can’t get to 15% if your name isn’t even in the poll. Or they include polls that include the Green and Constitution Party candidates, thus fracturing the no Trump and no Hillary vote.

      And if they get real desperate, they can throw in “undecided” to dilute the percentages a bit. Or conduct their own partisan polls that define “likely voters” as people who say they identify as R or D, and exclude the unlikely voters.

      And so on.

      1. This. There’s all sorts of ways they can rig the game without even having to change the rules. That’s the beauty of subjective, ill defined rules.

    3. In most circumstances, but giving Johnson an irregular amount of attention might push a few Trump votes his way and swing the election to Hillary. It would also help to diminish the assbeating-ness of any debate where the_donald and Hillary! were alone on stage.

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  2. What this election needs is a mass debate.

    1. I’m doing my part

  3. That isn’t a step-by-step process on how to get into the debates. That’s just a description of the current rules. Here’s a step-by-step process:

    1A. Raise a metric ton of cash and use it for national TV ads introducing people to Gary Johnson, informing them that he’s a qualified 2-term governor, reassuring them that he’s not a libertarian whacko, he’s not afraid of a challenge (like say, Mt. Everest) and letting them know they have a choice.

    2A. Top 15% in all the polls and get in.


    1B. Sue the pants off the CPD for setting up ridiculous debate criteria, and get a judge to lower the threshold to 1%, or turn the debates over to a non-partisan host like the League of Women Voters.


    1C. Bypass the CPD and get some TV network to host a 3 or 4-way debate. Clinton would probably pass, but Trump and Stein would show up for sure.

    1. Trump wouldn’t show up to a non-CPD debate. Personally he might but his advisers would talk him out of it. Just like a month or two ago he agreed to debate Bernie Sanders and then thought better of it.

      The first rule of politics is you don’t punch down.

    2. LWV dropped their support several elections ago, when the R’s and D’s made it clear they wanted a closed, 2 party system.

      LWV would have nothing to do with the rigged game.

  4. If they let him in, his only role would be to help Hillary.

  5. The CPD is not a government entity

    It may not be a legislated entity. But every elected legislator puts party above both their oath of office and their constituents – and party is the main reason they get elected in the first place (via both party funding and gerrymandering). So it is absolutely NOT some private entity.

  6. What this election needs is a mass debate.

    I was thinking of a euphemism for something else.

    *rhymes with “pinching”

    1. Like what is mass anyway? Is it the vibrations of infinitesimal perturbations in spacetime, or is it curvature caused by some yet not understood phenomenon?

  7. Yeah great. But based on that pathetic town hall performance he’s going to need some coaching to be something other than a curious afterthought.

  8. First, he needs to get 15-20% of the vote. Then he needs to be prepared to wage a long and costly war with the GOP to stop them from changing rules at the last moment to exclude him no matter what. It’s not happening this time, and as a libertarian, I’m not disappointed since Johnson is going to come off looking like a goof ball, thereby painting all libertarians with a broad goofball brush.

    1. If the Dems and the GOP (neither of the major parties want the competition) cherrypicks even one poll that excludes Johnson, then he’ll need to average 19% in the other four to meet the 15% criteria. Throw two such polls in the mix, and he’ll need to get to 25% of the vote to be included in the debates. No way he gets to those levels prior to (not) being in the debate.

      It’s a private debate — they’re not gonna let another Perot thing happen.

  9. I agree with the other posters who opined that Johnson would greatly benefit from speech/debate coaching.

    1. I’m dubious. Two terms as governor and he made Marco Rubio’s worst moments look like a Dos Equis commercial.

      Like Pope Jimbo says, the best he could do would be to show up wearing an “I’m with Stupids!” T-shirt and say nothing.

  10. This is a fool’s errand. The entire purpose of the Ruling Party’s “commission on presidential debates” is to make damned sure that no Ruling Party twat ever has to face an actual challenger again. That’s why they took it away from the League of Women Voters.

    If Gary polls at 15%, they’ll raise it to 20%. If he polls at 20%, they’ll raise it to 50%. If he polls at 50%, they’ll just cancel the dog and pony show altogether.


    1. If he polls at 50% it’s all over.

  11. Gary Johnson Could Make It Into the Debates. Here’s How.

    A rift could open up in space-time, pulling us all into an alternate dimension where the LP is a major party?

    1. I do believe that would be the most likely scenario.

  12. I think we all went super critical of the cnn thing. Most of my friends and family who aren’t even small l libertarians actually thought he did pretty well. I thought it was ok at best.

  13. If cnn can give the Libertarians a Townhall why can’t the others like Fox

    1. I believe Fox and The Blaze were the only ones to air a Libertarian debate…

  14. Better bone up as the two pirahanas will eat him alive.

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    1. Maybe that’s what Johnson needs to do.

  16. “sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College.”
    This, IMO, should be the ONLY requirement (besides being constitutionally eligible of course).

    1. Whoever scribbled the “mathematical chance” specification is admitting in writing they do not know the definition of a probability and lack the capacity to differentiate a constant. In fact, if there is a coherent thought there, “looters only” sums it up in two words–kind of like the old water fountain and restroom signs still popular when Ayn was composing the NAP.

  17. Someone with far greater video skills than any I will ever possess needs to make a Johnson campaign commercial with an “Alien vs. Predator” theme. It would start with a cool fight scene between the creatures and then the Alien morphs into Hillary and the Predator into Trump. Then the caption: “CVT–Clinton vs. Trump. Whoever wins, we lose. ”

    Then the “Vote Johnson.” pitch.

  18. All this so he can look and sound like a MORON in the debate. Of course Trump will jump on that which will garner support from the lefty’s. So we’ll see.

    Mr. Johnson is a fine human being but he does not practice good communication. He is more of a turn-off than a turn-on for liberty.

    Such is the sad situation.

    1. These States are repealing republican nationalsocialist laws at a good clip, quite in keeping with the 3% spoiler vote the LP gathered in the mid-term elections. We have passable up-ballot candidates–neither anarchists nor mystical prohibitionists. Gary will do for now if he reads the platform.
      Congress writes the laws, and will repeal laws and taxes to keep on the payroll. The President only signs or tries to veto laws, and can issue Executive orders that stand or fall the Congress willing.

  19. After his Meet the Press, and CNN Town Hall performance, I hope to hell he isn’t invited to the debates. He’d set the LP back fifty years.

    1. I did not actually watch the town hall but my 90 year old aunt, who is a life long Massachusetts democrat, did and really liked GJ to the point where she just might vote for him.

      I think debates are overrated and given the choice of a complete fucking asshole and a she-robot, GJ already has a huge advantage. He needs to work more on getting his name out there and sticking to a few issues where he can give coherent answers.

      1. Is the punchline that your 90 year old aunt is actually deaf and blind? He was horrendous on CNN.

    2. Warren, I actually think that he is helping the libertarian party despite his underwhelming performance on CNN. There’s no such thing as bad publicity…

    3. i think the same thing that worked in the gay rights movement can work with libertarians. the more ordinary people meet one of you, the more they’re willing to consider voting for you. even if he performs badly, there’s too many people who have such a low or inaccurate opinion of the party that he can’t do anything but help.

  20. if nothing else, just make a youtube video superimposing him into the debates. answer the actual questions asked, etc., and promote the hell out it.

  21. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld have to get out there and raise their profiles, make news, do the things grown-up presidential nominees do; give well-written policy speeches at slickly produced events,inject themselves into the debates of the moment – where were they on Brexit?

    When Trump is coronated at that disastrous GOP convention, Johnson/Weld should get many high profile endorsements of (former) Republicans – Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney …? Are they doing anything to make that happen? Maybe by presenting a more thoughtful libertarian foreign policy vision in contrast with both Hillary’s stale failed neocon vision and the incoherent mess Trump offers?

  22. Get money, get on TV. Don’t get in debates!

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