So, let's say you're considering your options in the 2016 presidential race, and you're getting a little antsy. is it really just Clinton or Trump, Trump or Clinton? Well, not entirely. There are some third-party candidates in the mix who could receive anywhere from modest to surprising levels of support, and the man pictured above is foremost among them: Gary Johnson, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico, and the current Libertarian Party candidate for president. But here's the big question: could Gary Johnson actually debate Donald Trump?
If you've ever been a supporter of a third-party candidate, then this is a question you know all too well. There are countless organizational, financial and perceptual hurdles to overcome when you're trying to get elected president without a D or an R next to your name, and the issue of debate access is perhaps the biggest, clearest demonstration of that. If you can't take the stage alongside the other candidates, and challenge them in an exchange of ideas and rhetorical styles, you can kiss your chances goodbye. If you're barred from the debates, your message to voters might as well be "go ahead, throw your vote away!"
On the other hand, if you do manage to get in, you can start making some moves. There hasn't been a third-party candidate who's participated in a general election presidential debate since Ross Perot in 1992, however ― it's a very steep hill to climb.
Here's the basic idea: the presidential debates are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-governmental, not-for-profit firm formed in 1987, in the hopes of ensuring that the public gets to see its presidential candidates face-off before election day. And the CPD requires a minimum polling average to qualify for its debates ― here's how their official website puts it.
Under the 2016 Criteria, in addition to being Constitutionally eligible, candidates must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College, and have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate 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.
Now, the ballot access hurdle has already been cleared, by virtue of Johnson being the Libertarian Party's nominee. The Libertarian and Green parties are the strongest third-parties in this regard, with the former's ticket on the ballot in 32 states. In other words, Johnson and his party are already in the clear for the first requirement ― however unlikely it may be, he could theoretically get to 270 electoral college votes, which means he'd be eligible to appear alongside Trump (and Clinton, naturally) when the general election debates roll around.
The trickier part is the polling. The CPD requires that a candidate receive a average of 15 points or more from five major polling firms heading into the debate, and that number represents a higher share of support then any non-Democrat or Republican has received since, you guessed it, Ross Perot in 1992. Under normal circumstances it would be virtually impossible to imagine Johnson reaching this number ― back in 2012, he finished at just one percent, which was still the best finish ever for a Libertarian candidate.
But this cycle, with the ever-polarizing Trump having nabbed the Republican nomination? Who knows? It's not likely to happen, sure, but we've certainly seen stranger phenomena in electoral politics before. One thing's for certain, however ― if Johnson actually has designs on making this election interesting, he has to find a way to get on that stage, and convince conservatives that he's the real choice, not Trump. It'll be fascinating to see if he can pull it off.