To the surprise of no one who is familiar with how the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) works, Libertarian Gary Johnson has been excluded from participating in the first of three presidential debates (it's scheduled for next Monday night).
I can think of three solid reasons why Johnson should absolutely be included (most of the reasons also work equally well for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who has less than half the support of Johnson and none of the governing experience).
None of the reasons has to do with ideological preference on my part and I'll lay out them out in a moment. But first, let's dilate for a moment on what largely goes undiscussed about the CPD's mission: It exists to keep third parties off the debate stage. Keeping outsiders such as Johnson, a former two-term governor whose running mate is also a two-term governor, off the stage was one of the main reasons the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee took over organizing the debates nearly 30 years ago.
As I write at The Daily Beast,
Democrats and Republicans may disagree when it comes to abortion, spending, and taxes, but they are thick as thieves when it comes to maintaining an electoral duopoly (go check out your state's ballot-access laws sometime). Nowhere is this collusion more flagrant than in the machinations of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the "nonpartisan" nonprofit that operates the debates and was created 29 years ago by the Democratic and Republican Parties with the goal of excluding third-party candidates.
"By jointly sponsoring these debates," reads the 1987 press release (PDF) announcing the formation of the CPD, "we will better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all, we can institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process."
I spoke to one of the authors of that original press release. Terry Michael, a contributor to Reason.com who now calls himself a "libertarian Democrat," was the DNC's press secretary at the time and he was neck deep in the machinations by which the DNC and RNC took responsibility for the debates away from the League of Women Voters starting in 1988. It was, says Michael, a "power play to confine the debates to a conversation between Republicans and Democrats."
While we take tedious, stage-managed television debates for granted, the history of televised presidential debates is short and sketchy. After the Kennedy-Nixon one in 1960 (sponsored by the TV networks), there wasn't another one until 1976. In 1980, President Carter refused to participate in the first debate because independent candidate John Anderson was included along with Ronald Reagan. The CPD has organized debates since 1988 and had no intention of including Ross Perot in 1992, except for the fact that he was leading the race before dropping out temporarily for the weirdest of all reasons (he claimed the Bushes and Republicans were going to falsely unmask his daughter as a lesbian. For realz.). The commission, says Michael, let him in when he rejoined the race in late September. And get this: Perot was pulling 8 percent—less than Gary Johnson is now!—when he got a bid to join the big boys on the stage. "Mr. Perot's standing in 1992 polls at one time was close to 40 percent and exceeded that of the major party candidates, and he ultimately received 18.7 percent of the popular vote," crows the CPD about its inclusivity. As if Perot's final showing wasn't massively enhanced by the fact that he participated in nationally televised debates! Indeed, in 1996, despite the fact that Perot had clearly affected the outcome of the previous race, they kept him off the stage despite his pulling as high as 19 percent before finishing with 8 percent of the vote. The current cut-off of 15 percent in five polls selected by the CPD came into existence in 2000 as Ralph Nader was polling as high as 6 percent (he would finish with 2.74 percent of the vote in the closest presidential election in U.S. history). For 2016, CPD has also added the requirement that a candidate be on enough state ballots to theoretically win the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
So what are the three strong reasons Gary Johnson and should be on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? (Two of the three apply also to Jill Stein.)
First, the 15 percent mark is totally arbitrary and meaningless. If you're going to insist on a poll-driven number, 5 percent makes far more sense. That's the number you need to hit to receive federal matching funds and it's also the level that most states insist on for a party to receive "major-party status" and thus not have to jump through a bunch of ballot-access hoops every election. According to RealClearPolitics' latest roundup of national polls, Johnson is at 8.6 percent (Stein is at 3.1 percent).
Second, Johnson will be on the ballot in all 50 states, so he can theoretically win the election but more realistically, he can totally influence the outcome. In fact, a recent state-by-state poll had the guy in double digits in 42 states and at 15 percent or better in 15 of those. WTF is going on when a figure who will be on every American's ballot isn't given a shot to make his case on the same stage as the Republican and Democrat? FWIW, Stein will be on the ballot in 45 states.
Finally, there's this charming bit of video from 2000, when Donald Trump himself argued forcefully for the Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan, to participate in the presidential debates. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura introduces Trump by calling the exclusion of third parties "despicable" and noting that if he hadn't been allowed to debate Democrat Humbert Humphrey III and Republican Norm Coleman, he never would have become governor. "I think it's unfair to have such a high standard, a high criteria," said Trump of the then-new 15 percent polling threshold.
His comments kick at the 2:30-minute mark.