Group seeks to break Democratic and Republican stranglehold on presidential debates

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
President George H. W. Bush, left, talks with independent candidate Ross Perot as Democratic candidate Bill Clinton stands aside at the end of their second presidential debate in Richmond, Va., Oct. 15, 1992. (Marcy Nighswander/AP Photo)

A bipartisan group of retired politicians, former military commanders, diplomats, business leaders and political scientists is pushing the commission that controls presidential debates to drop a requirement that, they argue, unfairly excludes qualified independent candidates.

“We believe the current rule requiring non-major party candidates to average over 15% in five polls taken just days before the debates does not meet the governing legal standard and is harmful to our democracy,” the group, which calls itself Change The Rule, wrote to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in January. “Because the current rule affords independent candidates no chance to get into the debates, it dissuades men and women with extraordinary records of service to this country from running for President.” It did not list any specific potential candidates.

The commission wrote back in February, saying it would take the group’s viewpoint into account as it reviews its criteria for eligibility ahead of the 2016 election. Change The Rule said in a statement released Tuesday that it was taking its campaign public because of CPD’s “tepid” response.

The last third-party presidential candidate to take part in general election debates was Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992. Despite an erratic campaign performance, Perot got 19 million votes, roughly 19 percent of the electorate, the best showing by a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt championed the Bull Moose party in 1912. Perot fared far worse in 1996, when he drew about 8.5 percent of the vote after a campaign in which he did not appear in the debates. Before him, former Illinois Rep. John Anderson won about 6.6 percent of the vote in the 1980 election, during which he took part in a one-on-one debate with future president Ronald Reagan.

According to Change The Rule, neither Perot nor Anderson would have been eligible to take part in the debates if the CPD had applied its 15 percent polling rule, which it adopted in 2000.

The group highlights Americans’ unhappiness with their political system, citing a late-2014 Gallup poll that found a record 43 percent of people identify as independents.

When pressed, however, 17 percent said they leaned Republican, 15 percent said they leaned Democratic, and just 11 percent said they favored neither party. And Change The Rule’s approach would rest on a tool the major parties used throughout the 20th century to exclude independent or third-party candidates: Ballot access laws.

Any candidate or party that gets enough petition signatures to secure ballot access in states totaling at least 270 Electoral College votes – enough to win the White House – would notify the CPD. If more than one candidate or party does so, the one with the most signatures would become the third participant in the debates.

According to Change The Rule, the winner would need to get 4 million to 6 million signatures, requiring a sophisticated fundraising and organizational structure as well as popular support.

Currently, the CPD applies three criteria: 1) constitutional eligibility; 2) Enough ballot access to have “at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority”; and 3) a requirement that the candidate have an average of at least 15 percent of the national electorate in five polling organizations.

Signatories included former senator and defense secretary William Cohen, former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, former congressmen Lee Hamilton (D.-Indiana) and Christopher Shays (R.-Conn.), former senator Bob Kerrey (D.-Nebraska) and Republican former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman.