Tonight, virtually the only substantive portion of our never-ending presidential election cycle kicks off at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Colorado. The event, hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, will be the first of three televised match-ups between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. What won’t be featured are the candidates of any other party. That’s because the rules require at least 15 percent support in five national polls for a candidate to be allowed to debate.
Third party candidates have only made it to the big dance debate-wise twice. The first occurred in 1980 when independent John B. Anderson crashed the party. Democratic President Jimmy Carter wouldn’t debate with him. Republican Ronald Reagan wouldn’t debate without him. This rift resulted in a Carter-less first debate, a canceled second debate and a third debate sans Anderson. Anderson didn’t win any electoral votes, but gathered 5,719,850 in the popular vote. The appearance of Ross Perot in the 1992 debates pretty much ensured the two major parties would never let another interloper through the gates, as he brought down an impressive 19,743,821 in the popular vote. By contrast, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was boxed out of the 2000 debates, only pulling down 2,882,955 in the popular vote. In each of these cases, Anderson, Perot and Nader were derisively described as kingmakers, allegedly denying Carter, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore the presidency, respectively.
Third party candidates may split the electorate, but they definitely break up the sheer monotony. Staying awake during the 2000 and 2004 presidential debates was a chore. Just look at the yawn-worthy rogues’ gallery: John Kerry, Al Gore and George W. Bush. For sheer power, there wasn’t a John F. Kennedy, Reagan or Bill Clinton in sight. But when a charmer is on stage, it’s usually lopsided, quickly devolving into a popularity contest. The most dynamic leader since Kennedy, Reagan was an actor through and through, with catchphrases like a movie hero. “There you go again,” he chided Jimmy Carter in 1980. This line worked for Regan so well that he brought it back out of retirement in 1984, this time re-gifting it to Walter Mondale.
Television is a powerful medium. Richard Nixon learned this better than anyone. The 1960 election, in which he faced Kennedy, was the first to feature televised debates. Famously, Nixon looked haggard and appeared to be on his deathbed. By contrast, Kennedy was a golden statue with a silver tongue. But unlike 1960, none of the 1964, 1968 or 1972 elections featured televised debates. It took until 1976 to bring the tradition back. Is it then just a coincidence that Nixon handily won in 1968 and 1972?
Televised debates are far from an antique tradition incapable of flexibility. The Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t even take over the process until 1988. Prior to that, the League of Women Voters moderated the 1976, 1980 and 1984 debates. The 15 percent requirement is a farce. Most pollsters don’t even bother asking about anything except Romney and Obama. At the very least, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein should be allowed in the mix this time. Both have their name on ballots in enough states to ensure they could conceivably garner the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win.
The two major parties know the grand influence of the medium, and want nothing left to chance. Outsiders shake up the paradigm and keep the Democrats and Republicans on their toes.
And why would they want that?
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.