Unlilely any third-party candidate will make it into US presidential debates

The threshold of support for being included in national presidential debates has been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates at 15 percent.

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Beyond the two major U.S. parties, the contenders for president are Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Stein is far below the threshold level and appears to have almost no chance of joining the debates. The highest Stein has polled so far is seven percent in a June 2016 poll. A CNN poll on August 1st showed that 13 percent of Bernie Sanders' supporters would vote for Stein, but 10 percent would vote for Gary Johnson the Libertarian candidate. Bernie Sanders has thrown his support behind Hillary Clinton the Democratic candidate for president. Between the periods of June and August of 2016, in a four way race between Trump, Clinton, Johnson and Stein, Stein's support has ranged from just 2.5 percent to 4.8 percent. As an election draws closer support for third party candidates tends to decline.
Gary Johnson is better known than Stein in that he served as Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 as a Republican. After withdrawing as candidate for the Republican Party nomination for president in 2012, he ran for the Libertarian party. Johnson concedes that extraordinary things need to happen for him to win a debate slot but his strategists also point out that a large number of Americans are unhappy with both Clinton and Trump as candidates. To win a slot would be a historic event as no third party candidate has managed to reach the 15 percent threshold since the Commission set the bar in the 2000 campaign. The Commission is a private group not accountable to the public in any way. While third parties oppose the bar as being much too high, supporters argue that a candidate should be able to prove that he or she represents a significant percentage of voters in order to qualify for such advantageous free air time that may be crucial in the race for the presidency. However, the high bar is just one more hurdle in a political system that is designed to work against third parties. Not only is campaigning very expensive, third parties only rarely receive coverage and discussion of issues is framed as if it is only the Republicans and Democrats count.
In the past, third parties often complained that many polls only cover the two main parties. However this time a number of significant polls include both Stein and Johnson. It is difficult to get 15 percent support unless there are polls measuring your support. Three pollsters including CNN are doing trial polls with the four main contenders. CBS/ New York Times and Fox News are doing three-way polls leaving out Stein. However, Fox News has announced it will include Stein in future polls. This will mean that four pollsters will be covering support for both Stein and Johnson as well as Trump and Clinton.
The presence of Stein in the polls may hurt Johnson's chances of reaching 15 percent support. When Stein is left out of the polls Johnson hit 12 percent in the latest Fox News and CBS/New York Times polls. However in the three recent polls in which Stein is included, Johnson comes in at just eight, nine and 10 while Stein averages five. Stein receives enough support to spoil any chance that Johnson has of joining the debates. While both Stein and Johnson rail against Trump and Clinton in the search for support, it would seem that Johnson also is being hurt by Stein.
Both Johnson and Stein are after the anti-establishment vote. Both draw from independents with a recent CNN poll showing Johnson winning 16 percent of their vote and Stein 8 percent. Johnson receives seven percent of the vote of disaffected Republicans while Stein gets three percent. Even with disaffected Democrats Johnson gets 3 percent with only two percent going to Stein. Johnson has only about a month to reach the threshold.
Politico article points out that Johnson faces a dilemma as he needs to gain more of the left-wing anti-Hillary vote and those who want libertarian, free-market, anti-Trump policies. At present his message seems to be not at all ideological but just to "throw the bums out". In a recent statement he says: “We may never agree on all the small things, but let’s agree on the big thing: both parties have blown it … Working together we’ll find fair sensible and honest solutions….” The article suggests he could aim directly at Stein's support by pointing out that Stein will not get into the debates whereas he could with help. However, it is unlikely that there will be much support for helping Johnson get in the debates from the Greens even though he can make reference to common ground such as opposition to drone strikes and the drug war. Johnson could use a similar tactic to appeal to the right saying:“The truth is Trump is not a conservative, and he’s not going to win. He opposes free trade, rejects entitlement reform and supports budget-busting stimulus. Give me a shot to beat her. If you stand with me, I will be the only one on the main stage defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership, making the case for raising the retirement age and pledging to balance the budget, without tax increases.”While these appear sensible strategies, they will probably not be enough to swing significant support to Johnson so that he will be able to enter the debates. Johnson has campaigned as if he were the only third party candidate. With Stein now appearing in the polls, and a factor in keeping him from the 15 percent bar, he may be forced to deal with her as an opponent at least tactically.


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