Skip Navigation

No Spoilers - Making an exception for Gary Johnson would entangle the debate commission in the election

Mike TowleMichael J. Towle
Contributor, U.S. News & World Report News
Michael J. Towle is professor and chair of the political science department.

Pity the Commission on Presidential Debates. Pressure is mounting on it to include Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the presidential debates, despite his falling short of the 15 percent that the commission's rules say is a prerequisite to being included.

On Tuesday, Johnson's campaign manager Ron Nielson published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. Nielson touted a national poll by Quinnipiac University showing that 62 percent of voters surveyed want Johnson at the debates. That's an impressive number, and the Johnson-Weld campaign repeated it on the other coast on Wednesday, with a full page ad in the New York Times calling on the commission to "Put a third podium on stage for the debate scheduled on September 26th." In an appeal to reason and fairness, it continued: "Allow us to make our case to the American people. If in the polls that follow, we fail to meet that 15% standard, we'll make no further efforts for inclusion in subsequent debates."

On Thursday, the candidate himself presented another argument. In an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report, Johnson argued that the commission should allow any candidates into the first debate if they are on the ballot in all 50 states, and apply the 15 percent threshold for subsequent debates.

The Clinton and Trump campaigns can be expected to attempt to determine if there is any advantage for their side before taking a firm stance on the issue. Since most polls at this stage that include Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein suggest that Clinton may be losing votes to the third parties, it probably doesn't serve her interests much for Johnson to be on the stage. Trump is on record saying that the debate should just be between him and Clinton as the only real contenders in the race, but one can imagine his campaign strategists dissuading him of that opinion if it looks like a serious run from Johnson could significantly damage Clinton.

Of course, events could play out the other way, too. More exposure to Johnson might put his candidacy under a microscope to the advantage of Clinton. Voters, for example, might be uncomfortable with Johnson's role as the former CEO of a marijuana company and his admission that he has used marijuana recreationally as recently as this year. If that causes Johnson to lose some luster, will his casual supporters go to Clinton as the polls suggest, or to Trump as the best hope for the conservative cause? You can bet that the campaign strategists are asking those questions.
We should expect to continue to hear the "spoiler" argument until Election Day. "A vote for Johnson is a vote for Trump" some will argue. Others will see it the other way. But whatever the case, Johnson's presence on the ballot has changed the trajectory of this year's campaign. Getting the Republican and Democratic nominees to share a microphone with him will change it even further.

And that's the conundrum that the commission will face if it considers Johnson's request for a presence at the debates, no matter how strong his case may be. Anything it does will be read as having an altering influence on the election.

For this reason, the commission can not heed Johnson's pressure. It is officially an independent organization, and eschews any attachment to either political party. It published its 15 percent rule in October of last year, and the rule has been essentially the same for the last four presidential elections. If they suddenly bent the rules at this late date, they themselves would be labeled the spoilers in this year's election.

U.S. News & World Report News link to article

16300 Old Emmitsburg Road | Emmitsburg, MD 21727
Map & Directions | | 301-447-6122
Frederick Campus | 5350 Spectrum Drive | Frederick, MD 21703
Map & Directions | | 301-682-8315