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Third Party Candidates and the U.S. Presidential Debates

On September 26, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participated in the first presidential debate of this year’s election season. It was held at Hofstra University in New York, and was broadcasted across on all major television networks.

Two other candidates did not participate in the debates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the nominees of the Libertarian and Green parties, respectively. The candidates did not reach the threshold of popular support, shown through polling, to participate in the debate. According to Real Clear Politics, Gary Johnson is polling at around 8% and Stein around 3%, both below the 15% requirement set by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Both Johnson and Stein have run previous campaigns during 2012, with miniscule support. One might hypothesize their relative increase in support has something to do with the choices one has for president. Despite these modest gains, these candidates still have very small chances of winning the presidential election.

One major problem these third-party candidates will face is lack of recognition by the majority of the U.S. electorate. This problem is exacerbated by their lack of participation in the first debate. I find it quite improbable that these candidates will reach the 15% margin required by the second debate on October 9th, especially without the added benefits of participating in the first debate.

The presidential debates have a history going back to the 1960 election, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Since their inception, there have only been two candidates participating in these debates, with one famous exception. This exception being that of Ross Perot in the 1992 election cycle, who participated in debates with then president George H.W. Bush and soon to be president Bill Clinton. Perot had previously received poll numbers as close to 40%, and ultimately received around 20% of the general vote.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has created an artificial amount of support one must receive (15%) to be invited to the debates. This limit has essentially cut out all chances of a third-party candidate participating in the debates, since so much support is guaranteed for the two party’s nominees. This, in turn, gives no chance for third-party candidates to win the general election and essentially keeps the status quo intact.

That is, of course, one theory as to why the CPD keeps third-party candidates out of the debates. The CPD can’t just let in any candidate. The 15% margin keeps legitimate candidates in the political discourse and less fortunate candidates out.

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