Debates in the presidential and Nevada U.S. Senate races in the last two weeks have been exclusively a major-party affair.
In the presidential debate on Oct. 3, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson—a former New Mexico governor—was excluded by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a partisan group controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties.
In the U.S. Senate debate on Sept. 27, Independent American Party nominee David Lory Van Der Beek was excluded by a group of media sponsors, including the Nevada public broadcasting stations that carried the debate.
“I’m sure you are well aware that this is typical treatment for third-party candidates in any important race,” Van Der Beek said. “If I was no threat to these mainstream politicians, why not include me?”
From municipal office to the presidency, similar things are happening. However, small party and independent candidates are often included in community debates at schools and senior citizens centers. It’s broadcast debates that the less known candidates have trouble getting into.
Contrary to what some of the minor candidates think, it’s not a decision made lightly.
“How many debate participants to include was a tough call,” according to KNPB news director Brent Boynton when he described planning for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state legislative debates on public broadcasting stations. “I debated that issue with my colleagues at the Reno Gazette-Journal and Reno Public Radio. We all wanted to be as inclusive as possible—inclusive of ideas as well as of candidates who otherwise would get little publicity. However, we had to ask which would offer the viewer the greater benefit—more candidates or more issues? … [W]e opted for depth of issues rather than depth of field, and it made sense to treat all races the same way. It was a decision made with some misgivings, yet one we tried to make in the best interest of the voter.”
It’s a decision that has become more complicated with the proliferation of political parties. Nevada has four ballot-eligible parties—the Democratic, Republican, Independent American and Libertarian parties. Broadcasters believe debates become more unwieldy as more candidates are included.
“Does that [limiting debates to major parties] make for a better exchange?” Reno television reporter Ed Pearce said. “Yes, a one-on-one just works better than a one-on-three or one-on-four.”
Pearce was a longtime news director at both KTVN and KOLO and has participated in a number of debates. He said that as more candidates are included, they are less likely to engage with each other, there are fewer back-and-forth exchanges—and fewer subjects discussed.
“It doesn’t make a classic debate,” he said. “It just becomes questions and answers.”
In that situation, the candidates are less likely to seek out weaknesses in each other’s positions, which is useful for voters.
It’s also true that debates make better television and radio if the number of candidates is held to two.
Pearce said he believes the multi-candidate debates that have become routine in Republican and Democratic presidential primary seasons show their weaknesses. To minor party candidates it shows just the opposite—that such debates have been informative and still allowed candidates to bore in on each other.
Boynton argues, “The U.S. Senate debate last week illustrates the reason we opted for more issues. In a full hour, the candidates answered only 11 questions, and that was with only one follow-up question. If we had twice that many candidates, as we could in the [U.S. House district 2] race, we’d only explore half that many issues.”
Outsider candidates disagree. They say fewer candidates suppresses issues, it doesn’t foster them, because mainstream candidates, moderators and panelists explore mainstream issues. Only the presence in the Republican presidential campaign of Ron Paul elevated the issues of the Federal Reserve and casual war-making, they argue.
“There will be talk but the major policies—of war, the failed economy, continuing bank bailouts with tax dollars via the Federal Reserve, and the loss of liberty through the National Defense Authorization Act—will remain the same, issues that are ignored because the twin parties apparently agree on,” said Independent American Party leader Janine Hansen of Elko County, who is a candidate for the Nevada Senate.
At the national level, the debate process is controlled by the two major parties through their Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s a private political organization, which its critics consider a classic conflict of interest.
One of its members, Newton Minow, last week argued that it is becoming more independent of the parties, because it has refused some requests from major party contenders.
“Critics have sometimes charged that the debates, and their format and substance, are controlled by the two major parties and campaigns,” Minow wrote in the New York Times. “This was once true. … Once derided as a creature of the parties, the commission has gradually become independent of them. In 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry tried to force us to accept a 32-page ‘memorandum of understanding’ setting out debate details. We refused, and they backed down. In 2008, Senator John McCain asked for a postponement of the first debate, citing the turmoil in the financial markets. We said we would hold it as scheduled, and he agreed to participate as planned.”
But refereeing among teams is not the same thing as opening the tourney to other leagues—much less to independent teams. There is no danger that the Commission is evolving from bipartisan to nonpartisan. Chairing the Commission are former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry and former Nevada and national Republican chair Frank Fahrenkopf. Fahrenkopf was one of the founders of the Commission.
The Commission makes only candidates with more than 15 percent of the vote in opinion surveys eligible to participate in presidential and vice presidential debates. This exclusionary rule was originated by the League of Women Voters, former presidential debate sponsor.
It creates the paradox—small party and independent candidates need recognition to qualify for the debate but being kept out of the debate denies them recognition.
Critics of both the League and the Commission say their exclusionary rules guarantee that money is always the determining factor in participation. They also say that the eligibility standard should be whether a candidate is on enough state ballots to get an electoral vote majority.
In 1996 and 2000 the Commission barred Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, whose reputation matched or exceeded those of his opponents (Time magazine named Nader one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century) and had ballot status in all 50 states. In 2000, he was even barred from the debate audience by the two-party Commission, though he held a valid ticket.
Last week three supporters of the Commission—ad agency BBH New York, tech conglomerate Philips North America and the Young Women’s Christian Association—withdrew their support in response to letters of complaint.
“This is a triumph for the debate reform movement,” Open Debates director George Farah, said in a prepared statement. His group has been pushing for debates without partisan ownership.