Could Libertarian Gary Johnson qualify for the first presidential debate?

The Libertarian Party candidate needs 15 percent of the vote to join Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in September debates.

Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters/File
US Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during the 'Politicon' convention in Pasadena, Calif., in June.

Gary Johnson needs a surge in the polls.

The Libertarian Party candidate has consistently placed third in surveys of the voting public, behind the Democratic and Republican candidates, with his support hovering at around 10 percent, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. That may be considered a strong showing for a third-party candidate. But it falls short of what Mr. Johnson, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, will need in order to qualify for the first presidential debate on September 26.

On Monday, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced its eligibility criteria for this year’s debates, requiring that candidates claim an average of 15 percent of the national electorate, as reflected in surveys conducted by five major nonpartisan pollsters.

The success of his campaign, Johnson says, hinges on qualifying.

“The only chance of winning is to actually be in the presidential debates,” he told MSNBC in June, “and to be in the presidential debates you’ve got to be in the polls.”

The pollsters were chosen on the advice of Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport, said the CPD, adding that the criteria would be applied in mid-September. Candidates who fail to qualify for the first debate can make it to the second and third, if they can muster a miracle.

“If a candidate is invited to the first presidential debate, that person's vice presidential running mate will be invited to the vice presidential debate,” said the Commission in a statement. “The criteria will be reapplied between the first and second presidential debates and the second and third presidential debates.”

Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, tends to get kudos from conservatives for policy proposals that include the abolition of the IRS as well as income and capital-gains taxes, the latter of which would be replaced with a consumption tax. He is also a strong proponent of marijuana legalization – and, until recently, a regular consumer of the drug – qualities that have spooked some anti-Trump Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and former candidate Mitt Romney, reports NBC.

Johnson and his fellow non-traditional candidates are benefitting this electoral season from the unprecedented unpopularity of the main candidates. In early July, 21 percent told Reuters/Ipsos that they would vote for neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate, compared to just 13 percent who said the same in a 2012 poll, and a majority said they viewed both of the main candidates unfavorably.

Still, Johnson has admitted that he is hoping for a back door into the presidency. If neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton receives a majority of electoral votes, the final result comes down to a vote in the House of Representatives, with a single vote for every state’s delegation. And in a July profile by the New Yorker, he suggested that in the event of such a scenario, he could represent a “compromise” president for the two major parties.

“Because, if it goes beyond one ballot, Democrats are not going to cross over the line to change to Trump, and Republicans are not going to go over the line to support Clinton. They’re going to have to compromise, and I’d be the compromise,” he said then.

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