Ken Cannon and Andrew Gray endorse third-party candidate participation in Kansas gubernatorial debates.
It is more than philosophical. It is personal.
Gray is the Libertarian Party’s nominee for governor, while Cannon carries the banner of the Reform Party on the November ballot.
The first significant opportunity for these third-party leaders to exchange political barbs with Republican nominee U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic nominee state Sen. Tom Holland would be the Kansas State Fair, but Cannon and Gray know their odds of taking the stage in Hutchinson are minuscule…
WIBW radio personality Kelly Lenz said candidates automatically earned face time in the Hutchinson spotlight by raising $50,000 in campaign contributions, excluding candidate loans; staffing a campaign office with a statewide reach; and snaring at least 7 percent support in a poll. These rules are flexible, he said. Hypothetically, a candidate who polled well but hadn’t raised much money or hadn’t operated with a room full of aides would be welcomed, he said.
The above story is a common situation for minor party and independent candidates throughout America: being prevented from debating. We have to recognize that there are typically two different scenarios which result in the exclusion of minor party candidates. I will take the reader through each.
I do not use “Republicrat”, a common rhetorical combination of Republican and Democrat, in a derogatory manner. Instead, I use it because this phenomenom is not exclusive to either major political party.
America has a “First Past the Post” voting system for most political races. A byproduct of this is the concept of vote splitting, “an electoral effect in which the distribution of votes among multiple similar candidates reduces the chance of winning for any of the similar candidates, and increases the chance of winning for a dissimilar candidate” (as per Wikipedia).
Of course, politicians of any party must deal with this effect. The most effective way to prevent a split base is to not have any ideologically similar opposition candidates at all. Barring this, the next best thing is to silence said opposition. That is where the political calculating begins.
If a Republican fears a Constitution Party candidate may split conservative votes, then the best way to make sure the Constitution Party candidate doesn’t earn conservative support is to prevent him partaking in any public events. The same situation applies for a Democrat fearing a Green splitting liberal support.
In this situation, a major party candidate fearing vote splitting simply refuses to debate as long as the ideologically similar opposition candidate partakes in the event. The goal is to force those holding a debate or forum to bar the opposition candidate from the event. Thus, we saw Charlie Dent attempt this strategy in Pennsylvania against Jake Towne (and ultimately fail).
This strategy is risky, as Towne’s situation indicates. For starters, it may cause some negative press for the major party candidate who uses such a blatantly anti-democratic tactic. Second, it may just prevent the major party candidate’s voice being heard if the event goes on anyway, as it did in Virginia’s 5th district between Democrat Tom Perriello and Independent Green Jeff Clark.
This is an example of the Kansas gubernatorial debate described earlier. Your average voter is not the only one with the perception that voting for a minor party candidate is “spoiling” a major party candidate’s chances; instead, this idea often permeates organizers of debates who are more tuned in to the political world.
Organizers of such events often seek to permit only “viable” candidates to participate. In order to do this, an arbitrary benchmark may be created that is just out of reach for a minor party or indy candidate.
For example, in the Arkansas Senate race organizers of a recent debate refused to include Independent candidate Trevor Drown and Green John Gray. the organizers declared (when pressed) that candidates without 5% support don’t normally participate in presidential contests. The threshold itself may not be as much of a problem as the ad hoc nature by which it was created, for how can a candidate plan to meet an unknown threshold by a certain time (as happened at this event)? In addition, little polling of the race has been conducted, although one poll by newcomer Zata3 had Drown at 3% and Gray at 2%. Drown, it must be noted, also polled 6% in an internal poll for the Democrat, so it appears the biases of the event’s organizers may have gotten the better of them.
Nevertheless, excessive thresholds for participation may prevent a potentially viable candidate’s message from reaching a large audience through simple logistics. Jesse Ventura, former Governor of Minnesota, is a great example of this. Originally slated to receive 10% of the vote, the wrestler eventually won with 37%. Ventura attributed his victory to the ability to debate.
Yet Ventura would not won admission to the restrictive presidential debates. Minor parties from time to time find candidates with impressive resumes for their presidential nomination. However, the electorate at large often does not hear their message because of a simple rule of the Commission on Presidential Debates: participants must reach a threshold of 15% in several polls to participate. Not even Ross Perot, who in 1992 received 19% of the vote in his presidential run, reached this threshold in ’96. In this manner Republicans and Democrats are already provided an edge within the presidential race, as they will always have a primetime televised soap box for their campaign. Those candidates who spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars on ballot access rather than campaigning never get this subsidized opportunity to preach to the public.
This model from the CPD then spreads to down-ballot races. We already described this in the Arkansas Senate race. However, the Idaho gubernatorial race has the same issue for Independent candidate and former state legislator Jana Kemp. Potentially viable candidates like Kemp never get the chance to “pull a Ventura” if they are barred from the debate in the first place.
The Big Problem:
The above two scenarios sometimes combine to create a toxic situation. The CPD is a great example: the organzation which controls the impossible benchmarks for presidential debate access was also founded by two former Democratic and Republican Party chairmen. Similarly, other members of the CPD have significant histories in the two major parties. This skews the organization’s objectivity towards candidates, even as it decides the rules for the debates. There is no bright line to say where one scenario ends and another begins, creating difficulty in combating debate exclusion for minor party/indy candidates.
If you are a minor party or indy candidate supporter, is there any way to prevent this problem of exclusion from debates?
The short answer is yes. If a candidate has the financial resources and boots-on-the-ground campaign to get popular support, then they can make a grassroots firestorm to combat exclusive thresholds and scheming Republicrats alike through the press. Not even Perot had the ability to do this in 1996, but it can work in smaller races.
So the longer answer is maybe. One potential way to cut a major source of this problem is to attack the Commission on Presidential Debates’ restrictive 15% threshold for participation, thereby limiting its use as a model in down-ballot races. However, voters have shown little concerted will to oppose this policy, so this is not a likely source of reform.
Another method would be to change the electoral system, preventing the need for Republicrat scheming. Although this has occasionally happened in individual cities and towns across America, major changes to the voting system are hard to lobby through legislatures.
Until any of the three strategies described above can be effectively utilized by activists, don’t expect the eternal debate on debates to end.