Gary Johnson Is On The Road To Presidential Debates, And Here's How He Can Get There

The 2016 presidential election might be the best cycle for third parties in decades. With high unfavorability ratings for both major-party candidates, some American voters are more willing than usual to seek out an alternative, even if they don't stand a good chance of winning. And Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is benefiting most from this willingness as of August. His poll numbers have been steadily climbing throughout the transition from the primaries to the general election, and they need to keep climbing in order for Johnson to make it into the presidential debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) requires candidates to have at least 15 percent support in at least five national polls, selected by the commission, ahead of the first presidential debate, which is scheduled for Sept. 26. This creates a catch-22 situation for third-party candidates, who are generally not afforded much media attention; therefore, most Americans don't become familiar with their positions (or even their names). Johnson, along with Green Party candidate Jill Stein, sued the CPD last September in an effort to gain access to the main debate stage, but the suit was dismissed on Friday.

But Johnson might not need a rules change to get a podium at the debates. Early on in the general election, his polling average is 8.7 percent, and we can expect that number to continue rising. As of June, Johnson was garnering significantly more media attention than in 2012, according to a WhoWhatWhy analysis, which found that, across 12 major news outlets, only 12 articles were focused on Johnson in June 2012 compared to 69 in 2016.

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Producers who are working with the CPD have instructed presidential debate venues to plan for a potential third podium on the stage. And if Johnson makes it there, it will be huge for his campaign. He's still not likely to perform better than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, given the constraints of the two-party system, but it would propel a third-partier to a level of visibility that we haven't seen since independent candidate Ross Perot debated in 1992. Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote in that year's election. If Johnson performs anywhere near that well, it will lift his party to a new height of credibility, which could pay off in future elections.

Sure, Johnson wants to win the presidency. But he's also got his eye on the debate stage prize, a more feasible goal for the Libertarian candidate.