Feb 1 2000

Three’s a Crowd, Says Debate Commission

Media should insist on broad participation

On January 6, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced the criteria that presidential candidates will have to meet in order to appear in next October’s nationally televised debates. As usual, to be included, a candidate must meet the Constitution’s eligibility requirements, and must be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning. But the commission has added a third criterion: Candidates must command the support of at least 15 percent of respondents in national opinion polls approximately one week before each debate.

The commission says its goal in devising these rules is to “identify those candidates who have achieved a level of electoral support such that they realistically are considered to be among the principal rivals for the presidency.” But the nationally televised debates themselves can be a crucial avenue for lesser-known candidates to raise public awareness of their campaigns and ideas–especially those contestants with little money to spend on television advertising.

To see how the commission’s new rules might affect a little-known third-party challenger, it is useful to examine the case of Jesse Ventura, the successful insurgent candidate in the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race. Less than six weeks before the vote–and almost eight months into his campaign–Ventura’s poll rating in a September 16-20 Minneapolis Star Tribune/KMSP-TV survey languished at only 10 percent (Star Tribune, 9/23/99).

About a week later, on October 2, the first general-election gubernatorial debate was televised live. Believing that a successful Ventura campaign would draw votes away from the Republican candidate, Democratic nominee Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III insisted that Ventura be included. The debate went forward as a three-way confrontation among the two major-party candidates and Ventura, who was running on the Reform Party ticket. The Star Tribune (10/2/98) reported that, although no winner was declared, “Ventura, the underdog in the polls, made an impression on those who attended.”

Ventura went on to participate in seven additional debates, to favorable reviews. (“Ventura Wins Crowd’s Cheers Debating in Usual DFL Territory,” an October 7 Star Tribune headline read.) The next poll, conducted October 10-13 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press/KARE-TV, pegged Ventura’s support at 15 percent. A Star Tribune survey (10/20/98) taken a few days later showed his support to have risen to 21 percent. Remarkably, at the time that poll was completed, Ventura’s cash-strapped campaign had not yet aired a single television advertisement–but the candidate had participated in several televised debates with his major-party opponents.

Of course, Ventura went on to win the governor’s race with 37 percent of the vote. (He was followed by Coleman with 35 percent, and Humphrey with 28 percent.) Yet, although Ventura’s message obviously struck a chord with the Minnesota electorate, he would never have been afforded the initial opportunity to air his views in the first debate had the participants been weeded out according to this year’s CPD selection formula. While it is impossible to know with certainty how that race would have turned out, it is clear that a viable candidate would have been excluded.

Not only might the CPD’s criteria exclude potentially viable candidates, but limiting the debates to the Republican and Democratic candidates inevitably makes the events duller and less interesting to the public. People enjoy seeing established politicians challenged by unconventional or insurgent candidates. Compare the 1992 presidential debates, in which Ross Perot appeared alongside Bill Clinton and President George Bush, with the 1996 debates, featuring only Clinton and Bob Dole.

According to the CPD’s figures, the three 1992 debates, featuring Perot, were watched by an average of more than 90 million viewers. Furthermore, the audience for each debate grew progressively larger–from a viewership of 85 million for the first event to an impressive 97 million for the final broadcast. By contrast, the two 1996 debates, featuring only a pair of familiar politicians, were watched by an average of fewer than 42 million households–with the second debate drawing a far smaller audience (36 million) than the first (46 million).

The CPD, which says it exists to ensure that the presidential debates “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners,” has chosen a selection formula that would virtually guarantee a two-party affair this fall. Such an outcome would produce a more sterile and exclusive election season. Ultimately, it is up to the news media, which broadcast the events as well as providing moderators and panelists, to insure that the presidential debates go forward in a way that serves broad democratic interests–not just the interests of the two major parties.