A group of influential political scientists, current and former elected officials and activists are challenging a decade-old rule that they say prevents independents from engaging in presidential debates — and, in turn, effectively keeps them out of the contest entirely.
The campaign, dubbed “Change the Rule,” is aimed at convincing the Commission on Presidential Debates to change the standard it uses for third-party candidates to qualify for the debates.
Currently, a third-party candidate must average 15% in five polls taken days before the debates to qualify. It’s a standard that the organizers of the campaign believe dissuades independents from running, and turns off Americans from the process.
The organizers of the campaign commissioned research that showed that an independent candidate would need to raise an estimated $266 million to purchase enough advertising to even crack the level of name recognition in the polls necessary to clear the commission’s 15% polling hurdle. They also cited polling showing growing numbers of Americans are identifying as independents and abandoning the traditional two-party system as evidence there’s a need for the system to change.
They sent a letter to every member of the debate commission calling for the rule to be changed to allow a candidate to qualify for a debate by collecting 4 to 6 million signatures. The letter was signed by 45 political scientists, current and former elected officials and other interested in the cause, including political scientist Francis Fukuyama and former Sen. Joe Lieberman.
But the commission wasn’t swayed, responding with an apparent form letter promising to consider the recommendation.
The organizers of the campaign say they believe raising public awareness of the issue, and increasing the pressure on the CDP to change the rule, will ultimately succeed in bringing the CDP around to changing the rule.
Attorney Alexandra Shapiro, one organizer of the campaign, said the group believes that the lack of a credible independent candidate to run in 2016 isn’t an issue.
If you build a debate rule favorable to independents, she said, they will come.
“It’s like a chicken and an egg kind of thing,” Shapiro said. “The problem isn’t that there aren’t qualified people that would run, the problem is, under the current system, why would they run?”
“We think if the rule is changed that would actually encourage qualified independent candidates to engage in the process, because it would be more attainable.”