Democracy served? No Gary Johnson or Jill Stein at first debate

Neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein reached the 15 percent polling threshold needed to qualify for the first presidential debate. It's a blow for the three in five Americans who hoped to see a third-party candidate on stage.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Ajamu Baraka attend a campaign rally in Chicago, Illinois. Stein did not meet the polling threshold to qualify for the first debate.

The first presidential debate of 2016 gets underway on September 26. Two people who won’t be there: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

To qualify for the debates, each candidate has to be polling at 15 percent across five major polls. Libertarian candidate Johnson received 8.4 percent and Green Party candidate Dr. Stein 3.2 percent, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan commission which has been sponsoring US presidential debates since 1988 and which released its results on Friday.

That means that the first debate at Hofstra University in New York will be a head-to-head contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Their running mates, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, will be the only ones on the stage for the October 4 vice-presidential debate.

The Commission will continue to track the candidates’ polling numbers, and Johnson and Stein may make the cut in October. But the exclusion of the two candidates has raised concerns for the campaigns — and goes against most voters' wishes.

“To be excluded from the debates is an ‘electoral death sentence,’” Johnson and Stein told a federal judge in August, during a lawsuit that aimed to get both candidates a spot on the debate stage. Both needed the free exposure a nationally broadcast debate brings.

The two candidates have vowed to continue their campaigns, with Stein saying that — just like four years ago — she and her supporters will rally outside the debate venue on September 26. 

Looking at the 1980 and 1992 elections, Molly E Reynolds and Curtlyn Kramer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, write that it's unlikely that participation in the debates would help boost the two candidates' overall numbers. But this election may be different. They write that, "With more voters this election cycle looking to vote against a candidate they don't support rather than for a candidate they do, the electorate may be more open-minded than usual when considering third party candidates." 

Three out of five Americans want to see a third-party candidate at the debates, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Lucy Schouten reported in August. The interest in third-party candidates is largely driven by dislike of the two major-party candidates and a distaste for the political polarization that seems to have dominated this election cycle.

Third-party candidates, some argue, have moved beyond “spoiler” status, with support for Johnson, in particular, coming from voters on both sides of the aisle.

At Cornell University, the Cornell Republicans made headlines early this month when they came out in support of the Libertarian candidate.

This election’s unprecedented nature has made blind commitment to our Party unpalatable. The Cornell Republicans cannot, in good faith, endorse our party’s nominee. Mr. Trump should not be the face of American conservatism. Instead, we are proud to endorse the true conservative in this election: Gary Johnson.

Governor Johnson’s commitment to fiscal conservatism is unparalleled. Governing a blue state, he shrunk the size of the government, balanced the state’s budget, and never increased taxes. While we do not agree with all of his positions, we firmly support his devotion to free trade, states’ rights, and other conservative principles.

Meanwhile, longtime Democrats have also found themselves attracted to the Libertarian candidate. Clinton should “definitely” be concerned about Johnson’s presence in Nevada, former Democratic governor Bill Miller told Politico. “There’s just every kind of opinion you can think of. [The] northeastern part of the state and other parts of rural Nevada have a libertarian element.”

Support for third-party candidates is particularly high among voters in some swing states. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that almost one in four Ohio voters planned to vote for a third-party candidate, or were uncertain for whom they were going to vote. 

If the messages voters hear — or don’t hear — from Johnson and Stein in the next seven weeks are decisive in swing states, they could take on a sizable role in the outcome of the election. The votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida may play an important role in determining whether it is Clinton or Trump who takes over the Oval Office come January.

And like Ross Perot in 1992, who put the issue of a balanced budget on the national agenda, efforts by the two main parties to appeal to Johnson and Stein’s voters may change the tone of political debate. 

For some, that’s reason enough to give them a podium at the upcoming debate.

“The more voices in political discourse — the better,” Sean McLaughlin, a Massachusetts Democrat, told The Christian Science Monitor in August. He said having Johnson and Stein on the stage “might pull the right and the left more center.”

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