Making Room for Third Parties

Making Room for Third Parties



In 1960, none of the minor candidates on the presidential ballot sought to participate in the network-sponsored debates. In subsequent debate years, however, independent candidates have repeatedly sued in court or petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to gain entry to the debates, always unsuccessfully. In one campaign, in addition, a candidate justified his refusal to debate by blaming the third-party candidate: Richard Nixon asserted in 1968 that a debate featuring George Wallace would imperil the nation's two-party system.

In 1980, the League of Women Voters decided to include any independent candidate who had at least 15 percent support in national polls. Illinois Congressman John Anderson initially met this requirement, and the League invited him to a September 21 debate. But President Carter, asserting that Anderson was "primarily a creation of the press," refused to participate, so Anderson and Reagan debated alone. Thereafter, Anderson's support ebbed below the 15 percent mark. A week before the election, Reagan and Carter debated without him.

In June 1992, at a time when independent Ross Perot was leading in the polls, the Commission on Presidential Debates adopted new candidate selection criteria for the 1992 debates. The Commission said that it would allow independent candidates to participate only if they "have a realistic chance of winning the general election," as demonstrated by "(1) evidence of national organization, (2) signs of national newsworthiness and competitiveness, and (3) indicators of national enthusiasm or concern."

Perot's support dwindled over the summer, and he left the race. In October, he reentered. The Commission, with the help of an advisory committee chaired by Harvard political scientist Richard E. Neustadt, had to decide whether to include him in the debates.

Polls showed Perot's support at about 7 percent and dropping. "I was very concerned about our ability to get into the debates under the criteria that the Commission was using," Perot counsel Mulford remembered.

The Commission told the Bush and Clinton campaigns that it intended to resolve the Perot question by applying its preset criteria. "If they say Perot in, Perot in," said cochair Paul Kirk. "If they say Perot out, Perot out. And if you don't like it, either campaign, then you'll have to find another sponsor." Evidently willing to find another sponsor if necessary, the Bush and Clinton campaigns invited Perot to participate without waiting for the Commission to decide. Managers of each campaign believed that Perot's presence would help their own candidate.

Then, despite Perot's low poll standing, the Commission's advisory committee recommended including him in the debates. The Commission adopted the recommendation and sponsored the debates. For the first time, both major-party presidential candidates debated with a third candidate.

Despite Perot's inclusion in the 1992 debates, some people believe that the process remains biased against independent candidates. Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project said, "I wonder if the seeming ease with which the Perot candidacy was accommodated this season may be illusory. He had a tremendous amount of money and a unique set of political circumstances that compelled inclusion."

The two parties shouldn't be gatekeepers, admitting some independent candidates and excluding others, said Marvin Kalb of the Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard. Fahrenkopf responded that the national party committees wield "absolutely no influence whatsoever" over the Commission, as a matter of law as well as prudence.

Some of the factors that the Commission relied on were also criticized. Bill Rosenberg of Drexel University said that the relevant polling question may be "Do you want to hear this candidate's point of view?" rather than "Are you planning to vote for this candidate?" Perot counsel Mulford said that he doesn't believe that the ability to finance a campaign should qualify a candidate for inclusion in debates, though "we were glad they were using that as an indication" in 1992. To some critics, as Ellen Hume of the Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard pointed out, the Commission's criteria place "far too much power in the hands of the entrenched establishment -- the two parties, the national news media, and the pollsters."

One solution might be to include independent candidates in some joint appearances. John Anderson suggested that a Corporation on Presidential Debates could sponsor discussions devoted to particular issues, in which single-issue candidates would also participate. "You have to broaden this beyond simply the format of presidential debates," Anderson said.

As for debates, Anderson observed that some candidates simply must be excluded. "I looked once, and 275 people had registered with the Federal Election Commission their intention to be a candidate for president," he said. "We can't have 275 people crowding the debate platform." But, he added, the 1992 debates demonstrated that "there's nothing disruptive" about a three-person debate.

Michael Beschloss, a historian and Annenberg Washington Program Senior Fellow, urged the Commission to "err on the side of making it easy" for independent candidates to participate in debates. Commission cochair Paul Kirk responded that standards mustn't be too lenient. "The mission of the Commission on Presidential Debates is not to provide candidates not yet known with a springboard to leap into the national spotlight in the last month," he said.

In the years to come, Mulford predicted, the Commission may be forced to face the issue more frequently. "You are going to see an increase in the number of people making direct communications to voters," he said. "You may have a fracturing of the voting population into smaller support pockets for different people."


Michael R. Beschloss
Senior Fellow, Annenberg Washington Program

Third parties have been a crucial factor in a number of elections. Because of third-party candidates, 40 percent of the presidents elected since 1840 lacked a popular-vote majority, which affected their presidencies. In 1856 the Republicans got one-third of the popular vote and eleven states; four years later, they elected Abraham Lincoln. When Theodore Roosevelt ran in 1912 as the Bull Moose candidate, he got 88 electoral votes and changed the outcome of the election.

If you keep third-party candidates out of debates, you are depressing and in certain cases removing the contribution that they have made throughout history. They tend to check the effectiveness of the main parties. They also tend to bring issues onto the national agenda that the major-party candidates sometimes avoid. Finally, competition is healthy in all things. Third-party candidates in presidential debates will have the effect, ultimately, not of weakening the two-party system, but of strengthening it.

John Anderson
Independent presidential candidate, 1980

I do not believe that the criteria for inclusion of third-party or independent candidates should be left to the two parties. Instead, we ought to have an analogue to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Corporation for Presidential Debates would involve a distinguished board of citizens across the country, people beyond political ambition. They would establish definite criteria.

It would be legitimate to require that a candidate be on the ballot in enough states so that he could theoretically win a majority in the electoral college. Ballot access laws are still tough. Gene McCarthy started the battle in 1976, and in 1980 we fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to be on 50 state ballots. I never sent Ross Perot a bill for the legal expenses I incurred in 1980, but I was tempted.

In addition to ballot access, I would suggest between a 5 and 10 percent showing in national polls on Labor Day. There might also be consideration given to whether they had at least a modicum of political organization in various states that, again, would add up to a majority in the electoral college. And there might be consideration given to their having a threshold of financial support.