Even in the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, presidential debates still play a key role in the election process, Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said on Tuesday.
But voters hoping to hear from voices outside the Republican and Democratic parties — such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate — likely will be out of luck.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Fahrenkopf, who also serves as president of the American Gaming Association, said the commission will stick to its traditional debate rules, which, with a few notable exceptions such as Ross Perot’s participation in 1992, have kept third-party Oval Office hopefuls on the outside looking in.
“We’re trying to draw the line somewhere. Our purpose is not to use the debates to help someone prove that they’re competitive,” he said. “We use the debates for those people who have already proven they’re competitive to deliver their message to the American people. There’s a difference. Mr. Johnson or any other third-party candidate, if they meet the criteria, they’ll be invited.”
Critics believe the commission guidelines, which rely on polling data to determine candidates’ viability, create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mr. Fahrenkopf said his group examines five “major” polls, such as those conducted by the Wall Street Journal, Gallup and other groups. To be included in the three televised debates — a staple of the fall election season for more than 30 years — a candidate must average 15 percent support in those five polls, though Mr. Fahrenkopf did not specify all five polls that will be considered.
But Mr. Johnson and others trying to break the current duopoly criticize the commission approach because many major polls don’t even ask respondents about third-party hopefuls.
“The only way that I win is if I am on the national stage with Romney and Obama, and the only way I do that is if I’m in the polls that determine who gets in the debates,” Mr. Johnson told The Times on Monday. “And right now, only three polling organizations out of 18 are including my name.”
The first of the four debates sponsored by the commission — three between the presidential rivals and one between their vice presidential picks — will take place Oct. 3. The candidates’ VP choices will get their turn Oct. 11, followed by two more presidential forums Oct. 16 and Oct. 22.
Mr. Fahrenkopf promised changes to the debate format to allow for more focus on specific issues, but declined to elaborate on exactly what those adjustments will be.
An official announcement, he said, likely will be made Wednesday.
One certainty is that the events wll bear little resemblance to the free-for-alls that dominated the Republican primary process, often involving seven or more candidates. Those debates were criticized both for their frequency — at least 19 sessions were held — and their environment, which, on several occasions, included raucous audiences who cheered and hollered throughout the event.
“They’re not debates, really. When you have seven or eight people on the stage, it’s very difficult” to have a real discussion, Mr. Fahrenkopf said. “There were just too many of them. It almost became a sideshow, in my view.”
Unlike those panels, which were also a part of the Democratic primary process in 2008, Mr. Fahrenkopf said the fall presidential debates will offer voters a real chance to evaluate both President Obama and his presumptive Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“It’s really the only time that the two candidates are face to face. It’s not about campaign slogans,” he said.