How would consumers like it if, when they go to buy a new car, they were led to believe that the only real choice they have is to buy either a Ford or a Chevy? What if, after they looked at the Ford and the Chevy, half of all consumers weren’t satisfied with either one?
The answers are pretty clear: They wouldn’t like having their choices arbitrarily limited, and I suspect they would demand at least an opportunity to consider other options, such as a Chrysler or Toyota.
This unlikely scenario is precisely what happens every four years when America elects a president. In 2012, just weeks before the election, a Pew Research poll found that only 54 percent of voters were satisfied with their choices for president, and a full 40 percent were not.
These poll results raise a critical question: How would those numbers be different if voters realized that they do have more choices than just the Republican or Democratic candidate, and actually had an opportunity to get to know about those other candidates? I suspect, given a real chance to seriously consider and hear from other candidates, a lot more Americans would go to the polls satisfied with their choices.
Instead, what happens today is that voters go to the polls, look at the ballot, and see the Republican and Democrat, about whom they know quite a bit — and other names about whom they know virtually nothing, and are left to ask, “Who is that guy or that woman?” The vast majority have no clue what those “other” candidates stand for or even who they are.
It doesn’t have to be that way. One simple change to the “process” would alter the presidential electoral landscape dramatically and in a way that would engage more voters as they discover that their options are not limited to just buying a Ford or a Chevy.
Since 1988, the only nationally televised general-election presidential debates have been those sponsored — and controlled — by a private organization known by the official-sounding name of the Commission on Presidential Debates. This “commission” isn’t official at all. Much to the contrary, it was jointly and exclusively created by the national Republican and Democratic parties, and seized control of the debate process by dictating that their respective candidates would only participate in the debates they sponsored.
If anyone else tried to sponsor a debate, they would have to do so without the participation of the two “major” party candidates. As a result, the news media — and voters — have been left with no alternative but to play along.
In the real world, we would call such an arrangement collusion, and if Ford and Chevy did it, it would likely be deemed illegal. Shortly after this duopoly was created and its control over the 1988 debates exercised, a longtime sponsor of presidential debates, the League of Women Voters, withdrew its sponsorship, saying the arrangement “would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
Why did the Republican and Democratic parties seize control of the debate process? It’s obvious: They didn’t — and don’t — want any other voices to be heard in what is arguably the single most important forum of the campaigns. Only once, in 1992, has a third candidate been allowed to participate. That was Ross Perot, who upset their apple cart, prompting the commission to change its rules to require a candidate, in order to participate, to have achieved at least 15 percent support in five different national polls selected, of course, by the commission itself.
That rule would have excluded Ross Perot in 1992 and has, in fact, resulted in all debates since being limited to only the Democratic and the Republican nominees — who have the resources to achieve 15 percent in polls that are driven largely by name identification and publicity.
There is a straightforward, fair and realistic way to break up this duopoly, and by doing so, allowing millions of Americans to see and hear from other credible candidates: Eliminate the arbitrary polling requirement, and simply require that in order to participate, a candidate must be legally eligible to be president, and has qualified for enough state ballots to have a mathematical opportunity to be elected in the Electoral College.
Having been through the process, I can personally attest to the fact that only a credible candidate can meet that threshold. Qualifying for that many state ballots is a massive and costly undertaking, and one that demonstrates a level of support that certainly should merit a place on the national debate stage.
If these simple requirements had been in place in 2012, only four candidates would have participated: Mitt Romney, President Obama, Green Party nominee Jill Stein and yours truly. That reality dispels the Republican-Democratic contention that their commission has to draw a line “somewhere” to ensure credibility. Rather, I would submit that allowing even a couple of additional voices into those debates would increase credibility with an electorate that today has more self-identifying independents than Republicans and Democrats combined.
As never before in modern times, Americans are clearly not satisfied with the two-party gridlock that has come to control both our politics and our policies. Presidential debates are only one piece of the electoral process, but they are a big piece — and the only one that is theoretically designed to give voters an objective look at their options on a level playing field.
Restoring honesty and real choices to those debates will go a long way toward reshaping a landscape that obviously needs to change.
Gary E. Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, was the Libertarian candidate for president in 2012. He now serves as honorary chairman of the Our America Initiative.