The first presidential candidate debates are right around the corner, and the large number of GOP candidates has inadvertently helped supporters of minor party and independent candidates in the debate on debates. Because there are currently 17 candidates seeking the Republican Presidential nomination, Fox News will hold two debates on August 6. One debate will have either 10 or 11 candidates, and the other debate will have the other GOP hopefuls. Originally Fox said that only candidates polling at least 1% in 5 national polls would be invited, however Fox executives recently said “the requirement that candidates must score 1% or higher in an average of five most recent national polls” was being eliminated. Michael Clemente, Fox News Executive Vice President, said in a statement, “Everyone included in these debates has a chance to be President of the United States and we look forward to showcasing all of the candidates,” though he made sure to include that Fox only intends to showcase all of the candidates “in the first primary event of the 2016 election season.”
This decision to allow all candidates regardless of polling seems to not only be a double-standard among the media networks, but also among the candidates themselves. During a town hall event in Keene, NH last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked about the primary debates, and responded that he “was not too worried” because the nomination was a “long and winding road.” When asked if he thought there should be more than two candidates in the general election debates, he responded “I don’t know; I haven’t thought about it.” Then he asked who the third candidate might be. After being told that both the Libertarian Party and Green Party candidates in 2012 were on enough ballots to theoretically win the Presidency, Kasich responded “I don’t know. We’ll see how serious they are.”
The problem with Kasich’s “we’ll see how serious they are” response is that seriousness can not be determined by public opinion polls that don’t include the candidate as an option. Ballot access, on the other hand, is a good measure of seriousness. If a candidate or party has exerted enough effort to obtain ballot access in enough states to theoretically win an electoral college majority, that shows the candidate is serious, and it shows that the candidate has a modicum of support.
It strikes me as odd that we still need to have this discussion. However, it would not surprise me if the debate on debates continues well into the future, especially if the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) continues to require a candidate show “a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by the average of five selected national public opinion polling organizations.” If the CPD eliminated the 15% requirement while keeping the other two requirements (that a candidate be constitutionally eligible, and appear on “enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority”), since 1988 there would have been no more than five other candidates on stage with the two major party candidates. Experience has shown that debates can and will happen with ten or eleven candidates. Why can the general election debates not include up to five more voices?