Want to See Gary Johnson and Jill Stein Debate? Here's Why You Won't

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The U.S. presidential debates are like a "Best Beer in America" contest where only Bud Light and Coors Light are invited. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with these beers, they satisfy millions of Americans. But to claim one of them is the "best" while ignoring the hundreds of independent American breweries churning out some of the world's most unique and innovative suds -- well, that seems wrong.

Little surprise mass market politicians are touted for their "electability" the same way mass market beers are marketed for their "drinkability."


Clearly, Democrats and Republicans are here to stay. And it's a virtual certainty that "fringe" candidates like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich will never capture the nomination of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. That's fine. But what is not fine is the exclusion of legitimate third-party candidates from our national presidential debates.

That could mean you.

Let's pretend that you're fed up with the political gridlock in Washington and you decide to run for president. Amazingly, your ideas gain traction thanks to Twitter, Reddit and other marvels of modern communication. So you form your own political party -- the Compromise Party -- and volunteers in all 50 states pledge their support to collect signatures and get you on each state's ballot. Meanwhile, your tech-savvy supporters build you a secure donation website to cover all the necessary costs.

This is where your American dream ends.

The dream ends because most Americans will never see you. That's because, in a de facto sense, media companies choose who gets to participate in the nationally televised presidential debates: the only "free" venue for presidential hopefuls to make their case to all of America.

Of course, there is no such thing as "free" airtime. Under the current system, private sponsors shoulder these costs and, in fairness, it is their legal right to exclude certain candidates.

Here's the deal:

The Commission on Presidential Debates -- an organization created by Democrats and Republicans in 1987 -- sets the ground rules and extends debate invitations to presidential candidates; and they have only three rules:

  1. You must be constitutionally eligible to be president. (Makes sense.)
  2. You must be on enough states' ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning the election. (Also makes sense.)
  3. You must have, on average, 15% support among five public opinion polls (which are not immediately disclosed) to be determined at a specific point in time. (Which is also not immediately disclosed.)

My paraphrasing of this third rule may seem cynical, but if you read these three rules as they are officially written, you'll walk away with more questions than answers. This is not the level of transparency that you'd imagine for something so important to the American public.

Digging a little deeper, things get even less transparent: the Commission on Presidential Debates doesn't choose which polls count toward eligibility. They rely on Gallup as an adviser.

So You're Telling Me There's a Chance!

Gallup is a respected company, and it would be hard to question their credibility on political polling. But regardless of credibility, why aren't the deciding polls (remember, Gallup selects five) announced with ample notice? What if a candidate has been excluded from one or more of the polls? How can someone win 15% of a popularity contest that he or she isn't allowed to participate in? (This is what I mean by saying that media companies have de facto control over who can participate.)

Putting all of these questions aside, shouldn't constitutional eligibility and ballot access be enough to qualify for the debates? (Ross Perot made a similar argument in 1996.)

Obviously, the debates can't be open to every presidential-wannabe, but think back to the last time you were in the voting booth. Were you overwhelmed by choices for president?

Getting on ballots across the country requires time, organization, support and money. That should be difficult enough to weed out the riff-raff, but if you wanted to make it even harder to get an invite to the debates (but not impossible, which for all intents and purposes, the current system is), why not amend the third criterion to read: 15% of public support --OR-- the candidate is eligible for federal matching funds and has received the nomination of their respective party?

Under this system, the 2012 presidential debates might look like this:

  • Barack Obama (Democrat)
  • Mitt Romney (Republican)
  • Gary Johnson (Libertarian)
  • Jill Stein (Green)

Something tells me that this debate would touch on issues more thoughtful than who the real "outsourcer-in-chief" is. And considering that federal tax dollars are, in-part, funding the campaigns of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, it would be nice to hear them talk.

It's been 20 years since a third-party candidate has been invited to debate Republican and Democratic presidential nominees; we all know how political discourse has played out since then. Sometimes, it makes sense to look at the system that is in place and ask ourselves: Is this really the best way to do things? I realize that I'm not the first to say this, but I think we can do better.

-- Written by John DeFeo in New York City

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Did You Know?: That the AP presidential delegate count -- one of the most widely-cited scorecards of U.S. presidential primaries -- is tabulated by a single reporter. Learn more here.

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