Monday night’s presidential debate followed a familiar format: Two candidates, one Republican, one Democrat, all intent upon taking one side completely opposite of the other on every issue. The result was a debate with only two sides, a conversation that yielded no new ideas and a physical image of the extreme polarization that is now represented in American politics. What viewers did not see was any sign of the numerous third party candidates who are running for president, such as Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, or Jill Stein of the Green Party, who both did not meet the eligibility requirements to attend the debate. A third party presence might be the solution to the now-stagnant tradition of the American presidential debate.
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), candidates must meet the following requirements to participate in a presidential debate: (1) they must be constitutionally eligible to run for president, (2) they must be on the ballot in enough states for it to be theoretically possible for them to win an electoral college majority and (3) they must show in an average of five polls that they have at least 15 percent of the popular vote. The CPD’s September report indicated that along with Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, Johnson and Stein also met the first two requirements. Where the latter two lost was in the polls, where Johnson claimed 8.4 percent of the vote, while Stein won 3.2 percent.
Where these requirements fail is in a two-party system as polarized as the current system in the United States. Though the Constitution does not specify that there can exist only two major presidential parties (in fact, the Constitution does not even mention political parties), American politics has created its own two-party system through polarized ideologies. The result is explained by a theory known as Duverger’s Law, which is clarified in a Washington Post report. Duverger’s Law states that systems in which there is only one legislative seat per district, such as the United States, a two-party system will inevitably form.
- One consequence of this two-party development is that the major parties dominate the polls to the point where voting for a third party is considered a “wasted vote.” For example, a report from The Atlantic found that during the 2000 election, Americans were more likely to vote for Independent Ralph Nader in states where the margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore was at least 10 percent. With this mindset, however, the two-party division will only continue. The solution is to get third party candidates on the stage.
Though the polling requirement is an important tool to keep an excess of presidential candidates off the stage during the debates, 15 percent is a difficult number to obtain in polls, especially when a candidate is at odds against the Republican and Democratic parties. For a nation in which 39 percent of people identify as independents, compared to 32 percent of declared Democrats and 23 percent of declared Republicans, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, this is quite a disservice to those who want to vote independent, but know their third parties will lose. A lower polling percentage would at least give third party candidates the right to participate in debates and encourage voters to consider them more seriously on the national level, especially since both the Libertarian and Green Parties are on enough state ballots to win the electoral college.
The most recent occasions in which a third party candidate has participated in the debates is Ross Perot’s campaign with the Reform Party, in which he won 19 percent of the vote, according to PBS Newshour. While he stood no chance of winning the election, his emphasis on the national debt created new expectations for Bill Clinton, who did win the presidency.
The United States needs more of these third party opinions. Instead of focusing a debate on two polarized ideologies, the presence of third party candidates will encourage new ideas and broaden discussion about our nation’s issues instead of devolving into meaningless banter. There are more than two opinions within the American public. It is time to lower the polling requirements and do service to those outside opinions. Perhaps then we will finally have meaningful, educated debates.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.