The Third-Party Lock Out

Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate

Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate

The New York Times has a long profile (7/13/12) of presumptive Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Though I could have done without some of it (“ever polished in bright scarves and slim pantsuits”), reporter Susan Saulny gives readers a good–and rare–look at a third party political candidate.

Stein actually debated Mitt Romney in the 2002 gubernatorial race, and Saulny notes that many viewers thought she’d won. (“It’s easy to debate a robot,” as she put it.)

Barring a miracle, she’s not going to get another chance to beat the robot. The Times tries to explain why:

She longs to be included in the nationally televised debates, a high hurdle for any third-party candidate. According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, a candidate must have “a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate” as determined by five national polling organizations.

Ms. Stein’s problem, then, is of the chicken-and-egg variety: To get national name recognition, she needs television exposure in debates. But she does not qualify for debates because of a lack of national name recognition.

She thinks that is by design, to benefit major parties.

“If they actually have to debate a living, thinking, informed person, it’s very hard for them,” Ms. Stein added, referring to Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. “They have kind of a mutual agreement, which you can see evident in the nature of their debate right now. If it’s important, they won’t go there. Many issues are not on the table.”

That’s a pretty good explanation of the absurd presidential debate rules, but it’s important to note that they are, in fact, rigged by the two major parties. This is not just something Jill Stein thinks.

The Commission on Presidential Debates was set up by the parties themselves in 1987, in order to take the debates away from the League of Women Voters. As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen shows (9/28/00), some of this history has been reported by the New York Times:

The CPD was launched in 1987 by the then-national chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, to promote the interests of the two major parties and to ward off third-party interlopers. Mr. Fahrenkopf and Mr. Kirk head the CPD today.

“Mr. Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission on Presidential Debates was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates,” the New York Times reported. “Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates.” Mr. Kirk explained: “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”

Not much has changed in 12 years–Fahrenkopf is still one of the two co-chairs, but Kirk’s place has been taken by former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry.

TV networks have followed along with the CPD structure, but there’s no reason they have to. Why not invite all legitimate candidates with ballot access to an open presidential debate? The candidates who don’t show–probably the ones named Romney and Obama–can be represented by empty podiums.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.