Gary Johnson

Image courtesy of MSNBC

Will Presidential Debates Include
Third Party Candidate?

| published September 5, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

As voter dissatisfaction grows over a choice between two generally disliked candidates for U.S. President, attention is turning with unprecedented force toward third party candidates and independent candidates. Among those, one candidate may have the potential to upset the apple cart when it comes to the televised debates, the first of which is now only a few weeks away.

Current polls show that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is polling between eight to nine percent nationally, meaning he is bordering on the threshold necessary—according to the rules established by the Commission on Presidential Debates and agreed to by both major parties—to qualify to appear alongside Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Johnson, who gained the nomination of the Libertarian Party earlier this summer at that party’s convention in Orlando, has been critical of both the media for its general inattention to alternative candidates like himself (Jill Stein is the Green Party candidate; she polls at about 3% nationally among all voters; Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump Republican is polling at less than 1%), and the top brass of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party for what he says have been their behind-the-scenes efforts to minimize the importance of the Libertarian Party and efforts to keep Johnson off of the debate stages this fall.

Though Clinton leads Trump by about five to seven points in many national polls, the race has shown signs of tightening in several key swing states, where the all-important Electoral College vote could make the difference in November. And though both Clinton and Trump—on the surface at least—seem to have channeled the support of their party’s bases into a tenuous but tractionable level of commitment, both parties face uneasiness on the part of their traditional followers.

Some 61% of all voters think Clinton is untrustworthy, a remarkable level of negative polling for a candidate actually leading nationally. Even among most Democrats, Clinton is viewed as being averse to transparency and accountability. At least 47% of all voters think Trump is unprepared for the job of being President, and some 30% of Republicans say that they are unhappy about his nomination. Traditional and so-called movement conservatives are openly rebellious—uneasy or distrustful of Trump’s frequent flip-flops on a variety of key issues, from immigration to abortion, from gun control to campaign finance, from taxes to NATO.

After writer and author David French suspended discussions with his supporters to launch an independent conservative bid to challenge Trump, McMullin stepped instead into the breach as the candidate of anti-Trump sentiment, a sort of Republican without portfolio. But McMullin is underfunded and largely unknown outside of the rarified circles of Washington and hardcore political observers, leaving many GOP conservatives without a serious place to anchor support. Some polls indicate that Republicans, traditionally more likely to vote in large numbers than Democrats, may for the first time in generations simply not vote for President, or worse for the GOP, stay home on Election Day, putting the party at risk in key Senate and House races.

More ominous for both parties: a substantial number of followers of Bernie Sanders still say they have no intention of voting for Hillary Clinton, even as a similar block of voters within the GOP say they will be unable to bring themselves to vote for Trump on Election Day. Rarely have voters in the U.S experienced such deep dissatisfaction in the choices presented in a Presidential election, and the election of 2016 may turn out to be arguably the most unpleasant in recent history for many voters.

Johnson, now campaigning for President and on the ballot in all 50 states, hopes to channel much of that voter unease and frustration into votes for the Libertarian Party and his candidacy. The task is more challenging for Libertarians than Johnson merely suggesting that folks try out a third party as a form of novelty or as an act of protest; he must convince many millions of voters to break free of a 140 year-old template, a two party system so deeply rooted in the American landscape and so integrally hardwired into our political system as to create a solid zone of agreement between two parties otherwise predisposed to loathe each other.

Indeed, the two major parties have little reason to want Americans to spend a whole lot of time considering third party options. Their message to voters, in short: quit complaining, hold your nose, and vote for the candidate representing that party you have more closely identified with all your life.

But Gary Johnson (like Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992, and John Anderson in 1980) says that by simply accepting the two-party status quo as inevitable—even when both choices are stink bombs—is a recipe for more gridlock, more frustration, and more cynicism. Worse, it validates a broken system and reinforces bad behavior by the major political parties, fostering unresponsiveness and calcification. When they feel no threat from voter abandonment, political parties become slow to react to social changes, and become risk-averse. Major political parties also become primarily interested in the business of preserving power, as opposed to offering agendas for real solutions to real problems. Thus the two major parties tend to kick the can down the road on the most challenging issues: infrastructure, budgets and deficits, Social Security and entitlements, health care costs, military improvements and upgrades.

Libertarians have been preaching the message of two-party non-responsiveness for decades, with varying degrees of success, landing their party somewhere in single digits on Election Day in Presidential races. The Libertarian party normally places a distant third, but sometimes finds itself nudged into fourth place by other, more trending candidates—Anderson, Perot, Nader, to name the three notable exceptions.

In the traditional Presidential election cycle process, independent and third party candidates generally begin to slide into insignificance as the election draws closer. This is not merely because voters “return home” to the party of their default position—as many progressive Democrats did in 2000 and again in 2004 as Nader’s star began to fade—but also because, generally speaking, one or both of the major candidates hit their stride with more focused messages and more cohesive, relevant talking points.

And, for the most part, both major party candidates begin their inevitable and critical shift toward the center, easing away from base-driven narratives and turning instead toward undecided voters. (Trump, for example, has been nudging himself toward more moderate positions on several key issue, but with confusing and muddled results). Often, by the first days of November, third party candidates have faded almost completely, and—with the notable contemporary exception of George Wallace in 1968—dissipate so rapidly on Election Day as to walk away with no state wins and zero votes in the Electoral College.

Not since George Wallace in 1968 has a third party candidate pulled-in more than one electoral vote. Even Ross Perot, who managed to corral 19.3% of the total votes cast, won not a single state or a single congressional district in 1992. Nader, for all his tireless gumshoe work, endless pressing of the flesh, and his 2.83 million votes, only netted about 3% on Election Day 2000. Why? Because though many voters may feel the urge to punish their traditional party or repudiate both parties, they tend to gravitate—sometimes at the last moment—back toward the party they generally consider their home. In the most recent election only the youngest of voters, still flush with independence, free of the philosophical calcification that comes with moving into middle adulthood, and suspicious of party labels, have remained doggedly independent—as in Nader’s loyal legions in 2000 and 2004, and Bernie Sanders’ ardent followers in 2015-16.

George Wallace was the last candidate to deprive the major American political parties of significant numbers of electoral votes, and the last person other than a Republican or a Democrat to win a single state.

For this reason, third party candidates have good reason to feel that the system is rigged demonstrably against success outside of the two major parties. Gary Johnson, a former Republican and the former governor of New Mexico, hopes to convert the frustration and dismay which are now the prevailing mood for most voters into a reason to give the Libertarian Party a closer look.

Johnson, now pulling-in close to ten percent in some polls, and about eight percent in others, is performing better with only 10 weeks left on the calendar than any third party candidate in decades. In theory, he stands poised to rival Perot’s 1992 numbers and Wallace’s 1968 totals, and according to some analysts is doing even better than Strom Thurmond did on this same date in 1948. But, it is still early and Johnson’s hopes could fade as voters migrate inevitably—albeit unhappily—back toward the gravitational pull of their traditional party. Still, there is excitement that the Libertarian Party could gain traction on Election Day.

Johnson and his Libertarian strategists engage in no pretentions about this state of affairs: voter angst over an unpleasant choice between Trump and Clinton has brought Johnson to this place. The only question is can he convert millions more voters to reconsider their loyalty to the two-part system.

To catch that wave, Gary Johnson needs badly to appear on that debate stage alongside Clinton and Trump. Libertarians believe that if enough Americans are given the opportunity to see their candidate in action in a side-by-side-by-side three-way contest. There, on that same stage with Trump and Clinton, Johnson believes he can present an alternative to two candidates equally hated by the majority of Americans.

But Johnson faces a conundrum of sorts brought about even by the negativity: the level of loathing is even, a straight-up draw between those who hate Clinton and those who hate Trump, meaning that a large percentage of votes will be cast by people who want to block the other person getting elected. This is worse than the less-of-two-evils scenario often alluded to by cynics; this is war. This who hate trump will cast a vote for Clinton—though they share no love for her—simply to keep the businessman and reality show host away from the Oval Office. Likewise, a general and deep-seeded loathing for all things Hillary Clinton will drive many voters to support Trump on Election Day simply to deny Clinton her ultimate political prize.

Johnson also faces another, more challenging hurdle: rules established by the Commission of Presidential Debates—and agreed to by the two major parties—which would seem to ice out any possibility of a third candidate on that stage. To qualify for a debate appearance, a candidate must show polling results of at least 15% in five unrelated polls conducted in the 14 day period prior to a debate. Since the first debate is now looming on the road ahead (September 26 at Hofstra University, New York), Johnson must very quickly close a gap of five-to-seven percent.

Make no mistake: an appearance on the same stage as Clinton and Trump would be the ultimate prize for the Libertarian Party, which in its 47 year history has never managed to land its top-of-the-ticket candidate on stage in a televised debate. In fact, with the notable exception of Ross Perot in 1992, no third party candidate has appeared alongside the majors since the modern age of TV debates began in 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off.

But this state-of-affairs is deliberate, according to Libertarians. And it is a system designed carefully to screen out serious challenges to the two party system—a rare case of the two parties working in harmony, in this case for their self-survival. Just ask Ralph Nader, who famously even tried to crash a debate in 2000, only to be barred from the property and the parking lot by state police and security guards event though he and a few colleagues had legitimate tickets to be inside the hall.

For Gary Johnson to get exposure to voters and gain traction for his party, he must appear on that debate stage so that he can extoll the virtues of the Libertarian message. In order to accomplish that, he must draw poll numbers of at least 15% nationally, challenging enough for any candidate not aligned to the Republican or the Democratic parties. But since most political experts agree that in order to poll at 15%, he must have a national venue in which to present his case side-by-side with Clinton and Trump, Johnson is locked in the same mathematical paradox every third party candidate has faced since 1948. It is a self-reinforcing, self-maintaining system.

But Johnson can very nearly taste the prize. In at least six states he now polls at—or above—10%, a sure sign that he is making headway, though perhaps measured only in inches. In five other states he has reached 15%. Not quite enough to push him over the top, but a sign that the weather is favorable nonetheless. Johnson can also take umbrage in the fact that his poll movement has remained in a slow but steady upward trajectory, with few signs of peaks and valleys that one might expect when voters are flirting with third parties in a volatile year. He may also benefit from better-than-usual fundraising efforts in recent weeks, meaning that additional television advertising and internet marketing could push his poll numbers measurably forward in other critical states where he falls just short of the required 15%. At least two major Super PACs have coalesced behind his candidacy, which is also generating the financial muscle to keep his name in play among voters shopping for an alternative to Clinton or Trump.

Johnson has benefited from his selection of William Weld as his running-mate. Weld is also a former Republican, the former Governor of Massachusetts who briefly considered a Presidential run in 1996. Weld has drawn a substantial following, and his credentials have helped Johnson burnish the Libertarian Party’s not-so-subtle message that 2016 is a defining year for voters sick and tired of the negativity and pointlessness of the two majors.

Clearly, Johnson, Weld and other top Libertarians believe that once on that debate stage alongside Trump and Clinton, voters will experience a moment of clarity, and see not only that the two people vying for the job of emperor have no clothes (now there’s an image difficult to get out of your head), but that the two parties have become broken parodies of their former selves: entrenched in the same old talking points, mired in ineffectiveness and gridlock, and locked in a pointless power struggle.

Libertarians also hope to channel the combined power of all those negative feelings about Trump and Clinton—an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction by all groups in all 50 states—into a compelling invitation to join the Libertarian movement, and they are sure that the debate stage at Hofstra University will serve that purpose well. Any showing, they believe, will be better than none; but Johnson also hopes to create a positive cycle, using the value of that first appearance to kick his candidacy further forward, generating fresh media talk, nudging his name recognition upward, and ensuring that he will appear in stage in future debates as well.

The debate commission has been famously unwilling to bend, stretch or otherwise fold their rules, despite the ongoing complaints of third party candidates ranging from Patrick Buchanan to Ralph Nader to Ron Paul. But Johnson and his allies plan to assault the sensibilities of that system with a full scale frontal attack, hoping to gain enough leverage to work a Libertarian footprint onto that debate stage.

Flush with new incoming cash, the Libertarian Party and its two aligned PACs are rolling out an ad campaign over the Labor Day weekend extolling the virtues of Johnson and urging voters to sign a petition that Johnson be given access to the stage in New York. The ads could eventually run nationally, but this week will mostly target a dozen or so states deemed fertile for Johnson, and within reach of his polling goals. All told, Libertarians plan to spend about $3.5 million in a sustained, ten day ad campaign—not chump change. But the petition, even with millions of signatures, combined with Johnson’s frequent rounds of the political talk show circuit, will not be enough to move the generally immovable rules set in place by the debate commission, which takes a noticeably dim view of interlopers on the debate stage with the candidates of the two major parties.

One other limitation Johnson faces is the challenge presented by other third party candidates. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, is drawing about 3% nationally, enough—Libertarian strategists note—to tip the scales in favor of Johnson in a race without the Green Party. McMullin, too, may draw from the same limited pool of disaffected Republicans looking for an alternative place to park their vote in November.

Clinton and Trump are locked in what could be described as a duel to the death, with Trump regaining some of the ground he lost after a disastrous few weeks in late July and early August, and Clinton still struggling to overcome a complex tapestry of issues related to her emails and the recently closed FBI probe. Democratic strategists had been hopeful that the issues could have been in their rear view mirrors by now, but more revelations about her emails and Clinton’s muddled responses about her understanding of what constituted “classified” in email form during her tenure as Secretary of State have kept the matter festering among reporters for weeks.

Meanwhile, Johnson hopes to convert the fallout from chaos into traction for his candidacy. He has only a scant few weeks to nudge his poll numbers up to 15%. If he reaches that magic percentage by mid-September, Americans may get to watch a three-way debate for the first time since 1992, and for only the second time in modern history.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Offers Tough Talk (Again) on Immigration; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; September 1, 2016.

Trump Real Estate Entities Carry Enormous Debt; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; August 21, 2016.