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With both the Republican and Democrat conventions over, the general election has begun in earnest, meaning that we’ll know which doom our future holds in fewer than 100 days. Part of what will determine said doom are the august (well, September and October, actually) presidential debates, and the less-august vice presidential debates. Already, controversy is swirling around them. The debates are organized by the Presidential Debate Commission, an ostensibly non-partisan 501(c)3 organization that has been doing this since 1987. The current controversy has to do with the dates and times of the debates, which will apparently overlap with the the observance of America’s national religion (football). This post though isn’t really about the scheduling of these debates — it’s probably impossible to find a time slot that doesn’t overlap with something that will draw complaint — but about who should be in the presidential debates.
As you all probably know, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not the only two candidates seeking the presidency: Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party have also thrown their hat in the ring, though their presence at these debates hinges on their performance in the polls. In order to be invited under current rules, each needs to appear on enough ballots to win 270 votes and earn at least 15 percent support in national polling. I want to approach this from two angles. First — from a simple non-partisan, first-principles angle — what rules should we employ to design a series of debates meant to allow presidential nominees to be seen and judged by the electorate? How can they be fair, but not just also be an invitation for any crackpot that can get on a single ballot either? Second — and from a purely partisan angle — what debate rules and formats would be the best interest of either of the two major party nominees? I’ll give you my thoughts and I look forward to reading yours in the comments.
The debates are meant to offer voters a chance to compare and contrast the presidential nominees, but — on a national stage where numerous third parties appear on various ballots — the question of who is serious presidential nominee is a fair one. With the polling requirement, the current system creates a serious catch-22 for any third-party candidate: They need to be popular before they can get serious exposure, but they can not get popular without serious exposure. From the standpoint of democratic fair play, the commission should consider candidates’ seriousness rather than their popularity.
And to determine whether a candidate is serious, I would ask a simple question: Are you on the ballot in all 50 states? If yes, then your party is competent and serious enough to go through the work of putting you up as an option for all Americans. If you are only on the ballot in a handful of states, then you can’t be expected to win 270 electoral votes and should be considered a distraction. Though one could make the case that a candidate who was on 48 states — or simply enough to get them past 270 — should count, this is supposed to be a federal election for the entire nation, so a candidate on all 50 ballots has a much greater claim to a national stage than one on a mere thirteen big states.
Of course, this is politics though so First Principles and democratic fairness don’t mean squat. To quote one of my favorite movies “I’m a politician which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies I’m stealing their lollipops.” So, how should the debates be gamed for political advantage?
Let’s start with Trump, who initiated the current row over the timing of the debates. Right now, he’s complaining that the debates are poorly scheduled and will lose ratings. This may be compelling, but it isn’t the most compelling line of argument he can make. Let us consider two facts. First, one of Trump’s favorite themes is that the system is rigged and that Clinton is one of the chief riggers. The second is that Gary Johnson may be more of a liability to Clinton than to Trump. Currently Johnson does not poll well enough to be invited to the debates, but more exposure in them might give people who can’t support Trump an alternative to Clinton. Since Johnson will be on nearly every ballot — thanks to the hard work of the Libertarian Party — Trump has an opportunity to split Clinton’s vote, while attacking the rigged system he enjoys fighting so much. It’s a win-win for him and would start a debate in which (for once) Trump looks like the guy trying to do the decent thing rather than just being a jerk. Considering his latest brawls, he could use a break. And in a strange way, it would be easier for many Republican politicians to focus on defending Johnson’s right to be in the debates than having to explain Trump’s latest utterances.
Clinton, however, needs to work to keep the debate just between her and Trump, as she can’t risk losing votes to either Stein or Johnson. Moreover, she can’t afford to waste time or energy fighting Johnson (or worse) Stein, whom Sanders supporters love. As such, her best play is to kill their debate aspirations quietly and to let Trump complain loudly. This will make him look small, especially if she implies — and perhaps, actually says — that he is scared to debate a strong woman one-on-one, hopefully setting Trump up for another self-destructive rant that alienates his more reluctant supporters.