This one small debate rule change could upend the two party system…which is why it won’t happen


Ever since it became clear that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, clamor has increased to allow other candidates into the fall debates. Clinton and Trump are the two least popular nominees in modern history, so people are thirsty for alternatives.

Recent polls have found huge majorities of voters want third party candidates to be included in the debates, regardless of who they are. But the current rules created last year, before the Clintrump circus was ordained, make that almost impossible.

Candidates have to be on the ballots of enough states to win an electoral college majority, but they also have to have an average of 15% in five national polls selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s this last requirement that will keep third parties out of the game, but it doesn’t have to be.


The five national polls selected by the Commission are among the highest in which Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson polls, but they are also the ones that do 4-person polling most often. That means some of his potential support gets split with Green nominee Jill Stein. If those polls only asked Clinton-Trump-Johnson and Clinton-Trump-Stein instead of Clinton-Trump-Johnson-Stein, both third party candidates would probably find more support and increase their chances of making the all-important 15% threshold.

Why even have the polling threshold rule when the state ballot rule is already so strict? In order to win an electoral majority, candidates have to be on either the majority of state ballots or a handful of big ones, especially along the coasts. Currently only five candidates qualify.

Gary Johnson will be on the ballot in all 50 states.


Jill Stein is currently on 40, with 4 more pending, and 3 available for write-in.


Constitution party nominee … looks to be on enough ballot for a slim majority, under various state pseudonyms, but is way behind in its nationwide goals.


Would a five-person presidential debate be that bad? It would certainly be better than the 16-candidate, two-tier circus the GOP subjected its voters to in its primary. Shouldn’t voters have the chance to hear from the candidates who will be on all or most of their ballots?

The ballot access rule serves to limit the debates to a reasonable number of candidates who can actually win the presidential election outright. The polling threshold rule serves to further limit the debates to only Democrats and Republicans. One rule serves the public interest, but the other only serves the interest of the two party status quo.

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