With a show of solemnity yesterday, the Commission on Presidential Debates carried through its vow to exclude all minor-party candidates from the nationally televised debates. Protests against the Commission and its plans for restricted debates are expected to grow, including at the site of the first debate in Boston, Oct. 3.
Established by the two major parties in 1987 with the publicly stated intent of excluding competition to the two parties, the Commission cited its "Nonpartisan Candidate Selection Criteria" in announcing its decision. But the Commission, run by the former chairs of the national Republican and Democratic parties who founded the group, contains no representatives of third parties or independent voters. That's why the Commission was able to establish an arbitrary 15 percent poll-support barrier against third-party candidates just a year after Jesse Ventura brought 10 percent poll support into the Minnesota gubernatorial debates, and ended up winning the election with 37 percent of the vote.
The Commission went forward with its exclusion in the face of growing calls for broader debates from editorial pages, columnists and political figures across the political spectrum (Mario Cuomo, John B. Anderson, Jesse Ventura, Oliver North, etc.). It ignored a Zogby poll (released Sept. 13) indicating that roughly 60 percent of the American people want Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan included in the debates.
"Through the Internet and other sources, many Americans have educated themselves about the illegitimacy of this Commission, which took control of the debates from the genuinely nonpartisan League of Women Voters," commented FAIR's director Jeff Cohen. "The Commission is bent on debates that limit ideas, viewpoints and ultimately viewers, especially young and disaffected voters. The Commission and the two parties that set it up seem happy with a political process aimed at shrinking numbers of voters."
The 1992 presidential debates that included Ross Perot (with 7-9 percent poll support, he would have been excluded under today's threshold) had record-breaking TV viewership, and the audience grew with each successive debate. Voter turnout in November went up in 1992, reversing a 20-year decline. With Perot excluded by the Commission in 1996, viewership nose-dived, as did voter turnout.
The major party-dominated Commission on Presidential Debates is funded by corporations such as AT&T and Anhueser-Busch that give major soft money donations to those two parties. The Commission seems unwilling to adapt to the present-day reality of rising numbers of independent voters and declining major-party affiliation.
FAIR's Cohen concluded: "Americans who want broader, more democratic debates can speak out by calling on the TV networks to find a genuinely nonpartisan sponsor for more inclusive debates. And they can speak out by joining the protests in Boston."