In order to be invited to participate in the presidential debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates imposes a strict requirement that a candidate must achieve an average of at least 15% support in five national public opinion polls in addition to appearing on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning an Electoral College majority. This presents a problem to third party candidates whose support typically depends on the amount of national exposure they are able to obtain—the very same exposure their inclusion in the debates could provide.
This catch-22 is put into some perspective when one realizes the co-chairmen of the CPD, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Paul G. Kirk, Jr., are the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees, respectively. It was in fact collusion between the two major parties that caused the League of Women Voters, sponsor of the presidential debates from 1976 until 1984, to withdraw its support in 1988 over concerns that the demands placed on the League by the two campaigns with respect to the debates would “perpetrate a fraud” on the American voter. The departure of the LWV opened the door for the bipartisan CPD to enter, and closed the door on any further nonpartisan control of the debates.
So why don’t third parties or other groups hold and sponsor their own debates? In fact they do, but the campaigns of Kerry and Bush have explicitly agreed not to appear in any such debate, making it difficult for these debates to gain any significant media coverage. You may be surprised to learn that two such debates have already taken place this year. The first took place between Cobb and Badnarik on September 6, 2004 in New York City just after the Republican National Convention; it can be viewed online from the C-SPAN video archives. A second debate between these two candidates took place the same night as the so-called debate between Bush and Kerry on September 30—in the same city, no less—but received even less media coverage than the first. Fortunately it too can be viewed online thanks to the Free-Market News Network. Unlike the CPD debates, these debates were open to participation by all the electable presidential candidates.
The CPD and the major media do the American electorate a grave disservice by excluding third parties from the national political discourse. It is your responsibility as a voter to educate yourself on the ballot choices presented to you, but the CPD and major media would have you believe there is only a choice between Kerry and Bush for the office of President of the United States. Let’s not let the media automatically narrow the decision for us, for it is we who choose our leaders, and inappropriate for those who would be our leaders to decide what that choice will be.
One organization that is trying to change the debates in favor of the American people is Open Debates. Its executive director, George Farah, is author of the book No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Farah makes a convincing case for the elimination of the CPD and the restoration of honest debates in this country.