For a third-party candidate to make it onto the debate stage to square off against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he or she will need to be polling 15 percent nationally. The last time that happened was during the George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton race, when populist candidate Ross Perot was given a spot at the debate stage. In the end, Perot ended up splitting the vote, disproportionally taking votes from Bush, costing him the election.
According to some estimates, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is polling at roughly 10 to 12 percent nationally – not to far off from the 15 percent threshold. So will we be seeing him on the stage? As Politico reports, the debate commission is preparing for that possibility: The venues that will host the presidential debates are drawing up plans for a three-person forum that would provide a lectern for a third-party candidate to stand on stage next to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The directive comes from producers working for the Commission on Presidential Debates and it’s meant, they say, to force the university hosts to be prepared and not as a reflection of the state of the race. But it could give supporters of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein hope as they push an alternative to the historically unpopular major party nominees.
“With [former Gov.] Gary Johnson polling in some places more than double digits, they might have, some of our production people may have said, ‘Just in case, you need to plan out what that might look like,’” Commission on Presidential Debates co-chair and former Bill Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told POLITICO. “We won’t know the number of invitations we extend until mid-September.”
To participate in one of the four general-election debates (three for president, one for vice president), candidates must be eligible for the presidency and “appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College,” the commission announced last year. They also must have a level of support nationally of at least 15 percent as “determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”Johnson is hovering around 8.8 percent in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ average, whereas Stein, when included in polling, is at around 3.8 percent. A third-party candidate in the race may have gotten a Clinton elected in the past, but this time, it could be different. The “Bernie or Bust” crew is desperately looking for a candidate to pledge its support behind, with many looking to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Thus far, the polls on a hypothetical three-way race actually show Johnson drawing more support from Hillary’s supporters than Trump’s.
Could the addition of a third-party candidate who’s actually center-right be what leads to Clinton’s downfall? We can keep our fingers crossed.
[Note: This post was authored by Matt Palumbo. Follow him on Twitter @MattPalumbo12]