With McAuliffe and Cuccinelli engaged in a mostly negative race, multiple surveys have shown Sarvis doing far better than third-party candidates typically fare in Virginia. He appears to be pulling the majority of his votes from Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, who has consistently trailed McAuliffe in recent months.
Under the rules negotiated by Cuccinelli, McAuliffe and the debate’s sponsor — WDBJ (Channel 7), the Roanoke CBS affiliate — Sarvis can participate in the debate if he is “polling at 10 percent or above” as of Oct. 10. A handful of recent surveys — including a Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll in September — have shown Sarvis cracking double digits, but several others have not.
This isn’t just a math problem. The question of which polls to include in the debate calculus has been the subject of much behind-the-scenes wrangling, although most of the players involved don’t want to talk about it.
Cuccinelli has little motivation to grant Sarvis the stature and free airtime that come with a debate, and people involved in the talks said Cuccinelli’s campaign has consistently sought to make it harder for Sarvis to get in.
Cuccinelli spokesman Richard Cullen declined to wade into the details of the discussion. “We’re going to let the process play itself out based on the rules that both campaigns agreed upon,” Cullen said.
Publicly, Cuccinelli’s team has made it clear what it thinks of Sarvis’s candidacy. “Voting for Sarvis is essentially throwing your vote away,” Cuccinelli adviser Chris LaCivita previously told The Washington Post.
Although Sarvis has criticized both candidates, McAuliffe has not fired back.
“We agreed to the debate rules last week, including a reasonable standard for the inclusion of third-party candidates,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said. “While the Cuccinelli campaign has expressed concern to us about including Mr. Sarvis in the debate, we feel that if he meets the threshold, he should be included.”
Sarvis is optimistic.
“There’s a very good chance I’ll be in that debate,” Sarvis said after a forum Sunday in Annandale.
The debate agreement originally said Sarvis needed to be “polling at 10 percent or above in major independent statewide polls” but did not specify what that meant. Cuccinelli’s camp always wanted a higher number, sources said. Presidential debates typically set a threshold of 15 percent for third-party candidates.
More recently, as Sarvis’s stock rose, the McAuliffe and Cuccinelli campaigns and WDBJ agreed to new language saying that the decision would “rely heavily on the averages of major polls as listed on RealClearPolitics,” a nonpartisan site that aggregates poll results, as well as surveys released in the final three weeks before Oct. 10.