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Are Presidential Debates Too Exclusive?
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, May 1, 2000

A group of prominent Americans has asked the Commission on Presidential Debates to lower the bar for participation in the presidential debates, a move that potentially would open the door to a independent Pat Buchanan and perhaps other third-party candidates who otherwise are likely to be barred from participating.

Truth is, I like it. Most of it. Except the parts that are either naive, unworkable or based on a spectacularly incomplete understanding of current polling practices. More about this later. First, the counter-plan.

The proposal would open the debates to any candidate who received the support of at least 5 percent of registered voters in national public opinion polls or registered a majority in national public opinion polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the debates.

Under its current formulation, the commission will invite to a debate any candidate who garners an average of 15 percent in five national opinion polls, including those done by The Washington Post and ABC News.

The counter-plan is the work of the Appleseed Electoral Reform Law Project at American University's Washington College of Law. American University law professor Jamin Raskin, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington and former indpendent presidential candidate John Anderson are among its leaders.

In a report outlining the group's reform plan, the authors sharply criticize the private Commission on Presidential Debates criteria for inclusion in the fall debates as "heavy-handed" and "deeply problematic."

"The CPS places the cart before the horse by basing the exclusion of outsider candidates on the preferences of a public that has not yet seen or heard from these candidates in a debate," they say. "At the time of the debates many Americans remain uncommitted to a single candidate."

Moreover, they note that a candidate with 14 percent of the hypothetical vote "commands the allegiance of more than 17 million registered American voters. Are these voters' preferences simply to be disregarded in the CPD's rush to reduce the field to the candidates of the two major parties?" They also claim that "polls often understate the role of independents. Polling firms regularly base their opinion surveys on "likely voters" as determined by past voting practice. Such determinations ignore the possiblity that the debate may, in fact, create new voters."

They claim their proposal will allow voters to "hear candidates before they decide whom they will support." Lowering the bar also will allow citizens to "get the benefit of a candidate's views that are important to the political dialogue even if that candidate does not have enough support to win the presidency."

They also note that the 5 percent threshold is modeled after current election law, which requires a candidate or party to receive a minimum of 5 percent of the vote in the previous election to qualify for federal funds in the next election. Public sentiment seems to be flowing against the 15 percent threshold. A recent survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, one of the five media polling consortiums that the CPD will use to determine participation in the fall debates, found that 51 percent of those interviewed said Reform Party candidates should be allowed to participate in this year's presidential debates.

Four years ago, Reform Party founder Ross Perot won only 8 percent of the vote. Pat Buchanan, who is seeking this year's Reform Party nomination, gets somewhat less than 10 percent of the vote in current national polls.

A large but unnecessary part of the Appleseed Project's brief against the CPD standard is a critique of national exit polling. It claims that pollsters' definitions of likely voters are "subjective and presumptuous." Using past voting history effectively eliminates first-time voters from the sample. It also notes that response rates are declining, raising even more questions about the accuracy of survey.

Additionally, the group says that pollsters "are asking the wrong questions." Rather than relying exclusively on the public's expressed candidate preference, it argues that pollsters should be asking which candidates they would like to see in a presidential debate.

Well, perhaps. As someone who does media polls for a living, I found too many of the critiques of current polling practices to be misdirected, incomplete or simply wrong. First, an obvious point: If polls are so bad, why use them at all to select the presidential candidates to debate? Response rates under their plan won't improve. Neither will the alleged problems of undersampling certain voting and demographic groups.

That said, the objection to the 15 percent cut point is exactly right. It's absurdly high. But 5 percent is much too low. Just about anyone could get 5 percent, which is at or near the margin of sampling error for most surveys. Include Warren Beatty in your horse-race question, and he's in. Ditto with Jesse Ventura. Al Sharpton? Perhaps. No, definitely yes. Limiting the group to declared candidates won't help much; it would only force a legion of Pat Paulsens to "officially" throw their hats into the ring.

Also, the Appleseed authors should have talked to an actual pollster. If they had, they would realize that the biggest problem political pollsters face is that their samples of "likely" voters hugely overestimate the actual electorate. Only a half or fewer of all adults 18 or older end up voting. But in national polls, upwards of two in three typically say they're "certain" to vote in the upcoming election-a commonly used definition of "likely voter." (And no, first-time voters aren't automatically excluded from "likely" voters.)

Finally, there's a professional issue, at least for those of us who do polls for news organizations. I seriously wonder whether anyone in the media, including pollsters, should be so directly involved in determining candidates for president. I realize the selection may be an indirect consequence of our polls, and of our reporting. But the media should never be center stage, which is exactly where the current plan and the Appleseed alternative place it.

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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