Independents Strain to Break Out. Here's What Is Stopping Them.

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In an article Monday, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib, asked the question, “Is a third political party straining to break out in America?”

His answer was a clear “yes.”

The real question is why such a party – or merely an independent candidate for president -- hasn’t emerged. The answer is that an independent, or third-party, candidate has not the slightest chance of getting to the White House or even seriously influencing the policies espoused by the two major party candidates.

Why? Not because of the candidate’s policies. Americans are crying out for new policies and approaches – to end the gridlock and restore health to American government. No, explanation lies with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization charged with managing the final fall debates in 2016.

The CPD erected hurdles that can only be cleared by a Democrat and a Republican. And if you can’t get into the debates, you can’t get elected president.

By its own charter and public pronouncements, the CPD is supposed to be “non-partisan.” It is anything but. Its co-chairmen are Frank Fahrenkopf, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Mike McCurry, a Democratic Party stalwart and former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. Other members include former elected officials of the parties, and an examination of campaign contributions of nearly all the CPD members shows they are staunch partisans.

Seib cites a remarkable Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey that asks about attributes voters look for in a candidate. Topping the published list was “an independent candidate not affiliated with either party.”

But where are those candidates?

Look at the long list of declared presidential aspirants. Two men who have been elected to statewide office as independents – Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, and Lincoln Chafee, former Governor of Rhode Island – are running for the White House but as Democrats. When they ran statewide as independents, of course, they were allowed to debate. Running for president, they would not be.

And look at the Republicans. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is a nominal Republican, but he would clearly be more comfortable as an independent. So, we suspect, would Mike Huckabee or even Ted Cruz.

Wonder why they aren’t running as independents? Very simply because they would not receive the validation and exposure of appearing in the fall debates. They’d rather take their chances against an overwhelming favorite or in a ridiculously crowded field.

Seib’s piece stresses the “anti-Wall Street, antiestablishment themes” favored by many independent voters, but there is another set of independents –larger than the populist group – that is also unheard. It comprises Americans in the center, who are sick of the extremes that dominate both major parties. They, too, are “straining to break out.”

A candidate appealing to the center would have an excellent chance to be on the stage for the final debates if the CPD would make a single change in its criteria for admission.

Currently, the first CPD hurdle is that the candidate needs to be on the ballot in enough states to make up 270 electoral votes (the majority for election). Getting on the ballot means gathering signatures – a method of validation employed by every state.

The second CPD hurdle is the impossible one: achieving 15 percent in the polls shortly before the debates. Here, the CPD presents a classic Catch-22: you can’t get the 15 percent unless you have enormous name recognition, gained either from vast campaign spending or from media attention. But only viable presidential candidates can raise that kind of money (especially with the limits on independents, compared with party candidates) or get that kind of attention. And viability means getting into the debates. If you won’t know until just before those debates begin…. Well, you see the problem the CPD has purposely created.

Instead, the second hurdle should proceed from the first: If more than one candidate can meet the magic number of 270 electoral votes, then the candidate with the most signatures should get access to the stage – again, using the method of validation that the CPD and every state has endorsed (it would be ludicrous for a state to allow ballot access based on polls). In other words, there should be a competition to decide the single independent or third-party candidate in the final debates.

Such a candidate – a former or current leader in business, government, the NGO world, or academia, or a retired general or admiral -- might be elected president. But, if not, we can imagine the candidate having a significant impact on the policies of the Democrat and Republican. The major parties would have to adapt their views to compete for America’s independents – who now represent a record 43 percent of all voters (13 percentage points more than Democrats and 17 more than Republicans). Real votes will be at stake.

Seib is right. America does indeed want independent and third-party candidates to run for president. It is a corrupt and closed system that denies them the choice. That system can be changed tomorrow if patriotically inclined members of the CPD prevail over the partisans. 

James K. Glassman served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in 2008-09.

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