- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

The goal of the Commission on Presidential Debates, according to its co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., was to strike "a balance between reality and fairness." To eliminate all but the worthiest of 100-odd (including some very odd) legal candidates for president, the Commission ruled that to participate in the debates this fall a candidate must achieve 15 percent popular support averaged across five established national polls.

The Commission is bipartisan, not nonpartisan. Its members are drawn equally from the Republican and Democratic parties. Its co-chairs are former chairmen of these two parties. No Reform or Libertarian Party member need apply. Is this 15 percent popularity threshold designed to exclude all but the Republican and Democrat candidates from this fall's debates? And should we accept two parties that in the last presidential election in 1996 received between them only 42 percent of eligible voter support using their power to deny a platform to the other 58 percent of the voting age population?

The "Vanishing Voter Project" at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center reported its own polling in December. If people were offered the expected choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush for president, 45 percent of those polled said they would want a third party candidate. Even when offered a choice between establishment "outsiders" Bill Bradley and John McCain, 43 percent told pollsters they would prefer a third party candidate. "These results do not mean that more than 40 percent of Americans today would vote for a third party candidate for president," said project co-director Thomas Patterson, "but they do indicate the public's general dissatisfaction with the major parties."

In 1996 the Clinton-Gore ticket won re-election with only 24 percent of the eligible vote. The Republican Dole-Kemp ticket got only 18 percent of eligible voters. But now the Commission demands that any third party candidate demonstrate in advance more than 83 percent of this GOP margin in polls in advance before he or she can participate in this year's debates.

Reform Party aspirant Pat Buchanan called the Commission's exclusionary ruling "a Beltway conspiracy by the two parties," parties that he months earlier described as "two wings of the same bird of prey." The Libertarian Party reminds us that a small town mayor stood at only 10 percent statewide prior to his Minnesota debate participation, but today Jesse Ventura is governor.

On the day he was included in the 1992 debates, Reform Party nominee Ross Perot had only 7 percent support in national polls, but in the November elections he won 19 percent.

Should ours be a democracy of, by, and for the pollsters? Vox pollster, Vox dei? Is an average of five polls each using different samples and standards a fair and accurate way to determine who should be heard? Polls are an imperfect way of discerning public opinion. By some accounts upwards of 40 percent of those called refuse to answer pollster questions, and the largest share of these may be the busy self-employed likely to be conservative or Libertarian. Polls can be skewed by who is called and where, by how questions are framed, by the mix of urban, suburban, and rural calls, and many other factors, unintended or deliberate.

The Commission asserts that one poll 3 points too high will be offset another 3 points too low. Such averaging might be accurate if hundreds of polls were involved, but not a mere five. Try flipping a coin five times and see if it comes up "heads" two and one-half times. It won't. A Time/CNN poll taken Jan. 5-6 with 1,589 "adults" shows George W. Bush leading Al Gore nationwide by 17 points, 56 to 39 percent.

A Newsweek poll taken Jan. 6-7 with 753 "adults" shows Mr. Bush leading Mr. Gore nationwide by only 7 points, 50 to 43 percent. These parallel polls show a difference of 6 points in support for Mr. Bush, 4 points in support for Mr. Gore, and 10 percentage points overall. Either or both of these polls must be wrong far beyond their claimed margins of error. Is it fair to demand 15 percent popularity of a candidate when major polls can differ by 10 points?

And is it fair to demand a level of popular support to participate in presidential debates that only three third party presidential candidates achieved in votes this century Mr. Perot in 1992 with 19 percent, Progressive Bob LaFollette in 1924 with 17 percent, and Bull Moose former GOP President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 with 27 percent? Of these three, only Roosevelt achieved a margin of support safely beyond pollster error around the 15 percent Commission threshold.

To see what I mean, image the following scenario: It is September 2000. An economic downturn has lifted Pat Buchanan's prospects, and among the official polls one shows him at 15 percent national support and three at 16 percent. But the final poll traditionally the least accurate of the five is dramatically and suspiciously different, measuring Mr. Buchanan's national support at only 11 percent. When, by the Commission's rule, these polls are added together and divided by five, Mr. Buchanan's "average" popular support is 14.8 percent. The Commission notes that he has fallen short of its arbitrary threshold by two-tenths of a point and declares that Mr. Buchanan cannot be in the debates. Public cynicism about our democratic process soars.

The 1996 election produced the lowest voter turnout since 1924 49.08 percent of eligible voters. If it appears that the game has been rigged voices like mine will begin asking whether a government can be legitimate unless elected by a quorum of eligible voters. Is this really democracy?

Lowell Ponte hosts a national show on Talk Radio Network.

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