Here’s why young adults want third party candidates in the presidential debates

Gary Johnson speaking at a podium.

If the polls are correct, many millennials are still holding out for a third party candidate. Two weeks ago, the independent Quinnipiac University poll found that 29 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds favored Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. That was more than Trump’s 26 percent and just under Clinton’s 31 percent. And 15 percent of millennials in the poll preferred Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Even though we’re still being told votes for either of those candidates won’t count, and we’re better off hedging our bets on one of the two candidates who will surely win, there’s still the question of what if? What if they were given the same opportunities and air time as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

As a millennial who supports the aspirations of third party candidates, I’m disappointed that we won’t be seeing any of them on stage at the debates. And the logic for excluding them makes no sense.

READ MORE: Millennials want a little more honesty from the 2016 campaign

Imagine for a minute that you are the CEO of a young company. There are only two national competitors in your space, but they have been in business for more than 100 years and dominate the market. By offering a fresh take on the product, you’ve secured about 8 percent market share, but are still largely unknown to the general consumer, even though you have tremendous growth potential.

You’ve decided the best way to capture the largest audience, boost name recognition and realize growth potential is to air an ad during the Super Bowl. Now imagine you must first be approved by a review board. The board is not run by the TV networks or the government, but by high-ranking chairmen of your two competitors.

To mask their bias, they’ve given their review board an unsuspecting and official-sounding name. It rejects your ad buy on the basis that your company has too small of a market share and would just take ad time and potential profit from the more successful competitors. Worse yet, your conspiring competitors receive little to no criticism for their tactics since most people think the board is an independent body.

That would be a cartel! It could never legally exist in America!  

The problem is that when you apply this analogy to political parties and the presidential debates, it is essentially our current system. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is the organization that has sponsored every presidential debate since 1988. While it sounds like an official government agency, it is actually a private organization created and run by former chairmen of the Republican and Democrat parties

Before 2000, the CPD had no objective criteria for which candidates to include in the debates. It wasn’t until a recommendation from a Federal Election Committee investigation into the CPD and mounting accusations of partisanship after Ross Perot’s exclusion in 1996 that the group set an objective standard to shield itself from further criticism. The Commission said only candidates who achieved 15 percent support in national polls would be included.

READ MORE: The generation known for oversharing wants Hillary Clinton to share more

If 15 percent sounds reasonable, consider these facts:

Congress only requires a presidential candidate to obtain 5 percent of the vote to qualify for federal funds. By law, a candidate or party that receives 5 percent of the vote in a general election is eligible to receive federal funds for their campaign in the next election. The CPD requires a show of support three times that level, just to be allowed a voice in the debates.

Third parties face insurmountable hurdles that the major parties do not. The most egregious are ballot access requirements, which force independent candidates to pay or organize a national support system to obtain thousands of petition signatures in order for their name to appear on the ballot. Third party candidates also receive a fraction of the media coverage of a major party candidate and are excluded from roughly half of the polls. How can you reach 15 percent if your name isn’t even included? These hurdles drain a candidate’s resources that could otherwise be used to increase their national profile and polling numbers.

Elections are not won by a national vote percentage, but state by state. The Electoral College grants electoral votes to the winner of each state. If you’re polling in double digits in a handful of states, before the debates even occur, you could be a significant factor in the election.  If you think that’s just stealing support from candidates who can actually win, put your CEO hat back on and ask yourself if you should be allowed to advertise during the Super Bowl? The debates are the Super Bowl of politics and if you are not in them, you are deemed irrelevant.

So, here's a proposal: If we’re going to use a polling number to determine who should be allowed to debate, why don’t we just ask the American people who they want to hear? It’s not a difficult question, and no, there wouldn’t be hundreds of candidates on stage. This poll has been conducted by various organizations and there are typically no more than 3 or 4 candidates the American public chooses.

In reality, the 15 percent rule isn’t the problem. The problem is that the only metric that actually matters is if the other two candidates want you on the stage (see Ross Perot in 1992). That is the real reason you won’t see any third party candidates at the debate. You don’t have to support a third party candidate to think that’s wrong. We deserve a free and democratic process — and that’s what millennials like me are holding on to.

Young people want to see more diversity in politics, certainly demographically, but also in terms of policy and plans. Our democracy suffers when alternative opinions are silenced, which is why it’s not enough to have only two voices at the podium, and two sides to choose from on election day.

Tom Caruso, a member of The UnConvention Facebook group, resides in Stamford CT with his wife, where he drives a 1963 Dodge, enjoys third party politics, as well as various forms of punk rock.  He makes unscripted television for a living and yes, he knows what Aleppo is. For more of PRI's unconventional election coverage, click here

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