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Who's On Third?
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 30, 2000

Question: Why are third-party candidates never invited to presidential debates? – Derek Schutt, Eugene, Ore.
Perot's inclusion in the '92 debates boosted his numbers for November. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: The simple answer is that those who send out the invitations don't see them as having a realistic chance of winning. Leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties run the Commission on Presidential Debates, and they come from an obvious two-party mindset. Their requirement for debate participation is that the candidates must be getting at least 15 percent of the vote in an assortment of polls in September. They argue that for a candidate to be deemed viable, he or she should be able to pull 15 percent. Otherwise, what chance would he or she have to get elected?

The opposite argument, of course, is that these "other" candidates will never move up in the polls and gain public support without the kind of exposure to voters that they can only get by participating in mass media events such as the debates. In the past century, only three candidates from outside the two major parties have fared that well: Ross Perot (19 percent in 1992), Robert La Follette (17 percent in 1924) and Theodore Roosevelt (27 percent in 1912). Given that benchmark, it's hard to make the case that anyone, other than Gore and Bush, will do that well this year.

Debates between Republican and Democratic presidential nominees first began in 1960, but they weren't repeated in the three subsequent elections. Ever since 1976, when President Gerald Ford agreed to square off against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, these debates have become an established campaign ritual. In '76, the debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Eugene McCarthy, who ran that year as an independent, and Lester Maddox, the nominee of the American Independent Party, tried in vain to take part in the debates. Ultimately they had no impact on the results; McCarthy got about 750,000 votes nationwide (less than 1 percent) and Maddox received far less.

It was a different situation in 1980, when John Anderson's independent candidacy had the potential to be a major factor. For much of the spring that year he polled in the mid-20s. But, as usually happens to independent and third-party candidates, his numbers began to slide. The League set the bar for debate participation at 15 percent in the polls as of the end of August. When they finally decided to invite Anderson, President Carter refused to participate. It was clear that including Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman, would hurt the president and benefit Ronald Reagan. Although he was slipping in the polls, any boost Anderson would get from the debates was certain to come mostly from Carter voters.

Reagan and Anderson thus debated on Sept. 21 without Carter. But though many thought Anderson at least held his own, his poll numbers slipped into single digits. In mid-October, when the League sent out invitations for its second debate, Anderson didn't receive one.

There were no viable "other" candidates in 1984 and 1988. Ross Perot's belated and dramatic re-entry into the 1992 contest and his performance in the debates boosted his status, and he finished with both the highest percentage for any third candidate in 80 years, and the most votes for any third candidate ever. Perot never duplicated that appeal in his repeat bid four years later, and thus the commission voted unanimously to exclude him from the debates.

Actually, a trio of third-party candidates debated that year: Harry Browne (the Libertarian Party nominee), John Hagelin (Natural Law Party) and Howard Phillips (U.S. Taxpayers Party). Broadcast live on C-SPAN, it received scant coverage. Perot and the Green Party's Ralph Nader were invited but declined to participate.

See also:
On Throwing the Election Into the House (Oct. 29, 1999)
What Does Jesse Want? (July 30, 1999)
Independence Day (July 16, 1999)

Question: Why are the media ignoring Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader? More attention is given to Pat Buchanan, and yet he is losing to Nader in the polls. – Michelle Kenyon, Iowa City, Iowa

Answer: There has been more coverage of Buchanan up to now because, for much of the year, he has been a better story. His defection from the GOP, takeover of the Reform Party and battles with the old-line Perot loyalists have been great to watch – especially when the suspense over who would be the Democratic and Republican nominees had long ended.

Nader got into the race much later. But Vice President Gore's support for the administration's China trade deal has greatly disappointed labor leaders, giving Nader new media exposure and an unanticipated opportunity. The recent joint appearance by Teamsters President James Hoffa and Nader at a news conference may have been designed more to send a message to Gore than to suggest a forthcoming labor endorsement of Nader. But the longtime consumer advocate is clearly running a more energetic and committed race this time than he did in '96, and most observers agree that every vote he gets is taken out of Gore's hide. In that sense, Nader's influence in the campaign may be far greater than that of Buchanan, who draws from both parties (though more from Republicans) and who at this point seems less of a factor. While neither seems destined for the fall debates, there is no question that the Bush camp would love to see Nader included.

Question: John Hagelin is seeking the nomination of the Reform Party as well as of his own Natural Law Party. The idea seems to be the formation of a third-party coalition. Is Hagelin persuasive enough to tame these other, rather unruly, entities? Is not Hagelin's idea useful, despite it's not being particularly likely to succeed this time? – George Roger Clarke III, Charlottesville, Va.

Answer: I have not seen Hagelin campaign, so I don't have a sense of his strengths. But I suspect that whatever appeal he has as a candidate for the Reform Party nomination is based mostly on the fact that he is running against Pat Buchanan. And so it seems to me less a move to form a third-party coalition than it is a beneficiary of an "anybody-but-Buchanan" effort.

Buchanan has gone to great lengths to change the party from being the "vehicle that Ross built" to the "party that Pat took over." But not everyone in the party is thrilled about the change, including many who joined the Reformers at its inception with Perot at the helm. Lenora Fulani, a left-wing activist who has become a power in the New York chapter of the party, has ended her strange alliance with Buchanan and recently endorsed Hagelin.

Question: What's the story with the Libertarian Party in terms of support and presence on the political scene? Libertarians claim to be the major third party, yet the media seems to treat the Reform Party as the only "third," followed by a bunch of "also theres." – Paul Miller, Woodbridge, Va.
No Libertarian nominee has ever received a million votes, but Ed Clark came close in 1980. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: The Libertarians' claim to be the "major third party" is borne out by the fact that in three of the past five presidential elections, they have been on the ballot in all 50 states. But they have never shown much support nationally. Their high-water mark came in 1980, when their nominee, Ed Clark, received 921,000 votes – just slightly more than 1 percent of the vote. Their next best showing was in 1996, when Harry Browne (who will again be their nominee this year) polled nearly 486,000 votes.

But they did manage to do something that Ross Perot, with all his millions of dollars and millions of votes, did not. They won a vote in the electoral college. In 1972, the first time the party ran a presidential candidate, a Nixon elector in Virginia voted instead for Libertarian nominee John Hospers. That "faithless" elector, Roger MacBride, turned up as the Libertarian presidential nominee four years later.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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