Minow: The Debates Should Only Include Viable Presidential Candidates

Only Viable Nominees, Please: Let’s not include all 260 presidential candidates in the debates.

Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush have their first debate in Boston at the University of Massachusetts. Moderator Jim Lehrer is seated in the foreground.

The requirement that a candidate have the support of at least 15 percent of the electorate to be eligible to participate in the general-election debates ensures that the voters have an opportunity to see a debate between or among presidential candidates who have a realistic possibility of winning.

This is central to the fulfillment of the debates' educational purpose and this criterion should be maintained.

Every election year, hundreds of people declare for the presidency—260 this year alone. Obviously, all cannot be included in a debate. Thus, in order to serve the principal goal of the debates—to afford the public an opportunity to sharpen their views of those candidates who have a realistic possibility of being elected—some criteria must be used to identify the candidates to be included. The purpose of the general election debates, which come in the final weeks of a very lengthy campaign, is not to springboard obscure candidates to national recognition but to present to the country the leading candidates who have emerged from that campaign.

The League of Women Voters—which sponsored the debates prior to the Commission on Presidential Debates—recognized as early as 1980 that the 15 percent criterion is sensible and fair. In fact, the league employed virtually the same criteria as the commission—including the 15 percent requirement—for choosing John Anderson, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter as participants (though Carter refused to debate Anderson).

This criterion serves the public interest by striking a fair and appropriate balance between preserving the educational purpose of the debates and providing a healthy chance for the upward movement of new parties and candidates. It is high enough to limit participation to those candidates who speak to all Americans and are more than protest or single-issue candidates. It is low enough to ensure that Americans will have an opportunity to evaluate an independent or third-party candidate who has caught the nation's imagination in a forum with the leading candidates. In fact, twice in the past 30 years a non-major-party candidate has passed the 15 percent threshold: Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 (Perot, who withdrew from the race in July and then re-entered shortly before the debates, was under 15 percent in some polls at the time, but qualified under different criteria then in effect). Any candidate who has at least 15 percent support can participate in this year's debates.

In addition, the legality and reasonableness of the 15 percent criterion have been affirmed repeatedly by the Federal Election Commission and courts.

No perfect solution. In truth, the problem of whom to include in the debates is beyond anyone's ability to solve perfectly. There are, no doubt, possible alternative approaches. Some have suggested including any candidate who gains access to enough state ballots to permit a theoretical Electoral College majority. However, if ballot access were the sole factor, it is likely that ballot access would become the focus of a growing number of non-major-party candidates, and the field would grow unwieldy and include candidates with extremely modest public support. Some have suggested using eligibility for federal funding as the criterion. But using that standard would run a high risk of being both under- and over-inclusive if relied upon to identify the leading candidates in the final phase of a long campaign.

As every method of selecting candidates to participate in the debates will be imperfect, and though each method will have its advantages, each also has its own set of disadvantages. No matter how scrupulously fair and transparent a debate sponsor may try to be in organizing the debates, someone is bound to cry foul. The critical point is that the same would be true of any selection scheme envisioned by any debate sponsor. The system that the commission has set up strikes the proper balance between the need for practical debates that can educate voters while allowing competitive third-party candidates avenues of access.