Not invited to the party: Exclusion from debates another slap in the face to third parties

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Independent presidential candidate John Anderson was threatening to break down the door to the two-party system.

The Illinois congressman was running strong in the national polls, which showed him with the support of as much as a fifth of the electorate in the summer of 1980.

He also had a running mate with name recognition (former Wisconsin governor and ambassador to Mexico Patrick Lucey, who had been on George McGovern’s vice-presidential short list in 1972) and a coveted spot in the League of Women Voters-sponsored debates featuring Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

And then the two-party system started flexing its muscles.

It was Carter, specifically, who balked at participating in the debates with Anderson being part of the mix.

“It was for spurious reasons. He said he didn’t want to have to debate two Republicans,” Anderson told The Augusta Free Press.So Reagan and Anderson went at it sans Carter on Sept. 21, 1980 – with Carter’s absence guaranteeing a much smaller TV audience – and then, on Oct. 28, the week before the election, Carter debated Reagan with Anderson on the sidelines.

That the support for Anderson plummeted from 20 percent in the summertime polls to 6.6 percent on Election Day was not a surprise to the candidate.

“Certainly the fact that voters could tune in to see a debate with two candidates representing the two major parties played a role,” Anderson said.

“Many people thought I had dropped out of the race, and others thought that my campaign had somehow been deemed illegitimate to have a space on the same stage as the Democrats and Republicans,” Anderson said.

Anderson is today the chairman of the Takoma Park, Md.,-based Center for Voting and Democracy, an independent organization that works to promote fair elections where all voters and political groups have an opportunity to be represented.

And so it was that Anderson was in Coral Gables, Fla., Thursday night to take part in another presidential debate – this one cosponsored by the CVD and featuring Libertarian Party presidential candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb.

The location in the vicinity of the University of Miami – which was playing host to a nationally televised debate featuring Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry that, significantly, was not opened to Badnarik, Cobb, independent Ralph Nader or Constitution Party nominee Michael Peroutka – was not a coincidence.

(Editor’s Note: Bush, Kerry, Nader and Peroutka were all invited to participate in the Center for Voting and Democracy-sponsored debate, but declined.)

The Commission on Presidential Debates, the sponsor of Thursday’s televised debate between Bush and Kerry, limited the number of candidates in its forum to two based on one key criterion, namely, a demonstrated level of support for the candidates to be included in its event of at least 15 percent of the national electorate – a criterion that, as it turns out, would have mandated the inclusion of Anderson in the ’80 debates.

That only one other third-party candidate since Anderson has been allowed on the same presidential-debate stage as the Democrats and Republicans – Ross Perot in 1992 – is not lost on Nader campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese.

“To call it a debate commission is to give it a nice-sounding name, but what it really is is a corporation headed by the two major parties that gets its funding from major corporate investors and whose purpose is to keep third-party candidates out of the mainstream,” Zeese told the AFP.

The issue actually goes far beyond being excluded from televised debates, said Scott Whiteman, the campaign manager for Peroutka’s Constitution Party effort.

“This is the one thing that all the third parties agree on. We believe that the ballot belongs to the people,” Whiteman told the AFP. “It doesn’t belong to the Republicans. It doesn’t belong to the Democrats. It belongs to the patriots who work hard to make this country what it is.”

Gaining ballot access itself can be and is “an extremely difficult proposition,” Whiteman said.

“We’re forced to spend almost all of our very limited resources just to get on the ballot. That doesn’t leave much in the tank for trying to then get our message out to the voters,” Whiteman said.

And then comes the indignity of being left out of the televised-debate process from the get-go.

“The fundamental question that we hear from voters is, are you in the debates? It used to be about whether or not we were on the ballot. That was the first sign as to whether we were viable or not. Now people want to know if we’re in the debates, and when they hear that we’re not, they want to know why we’re not,” Whiteman said.

“This exclusion is a significant reason that third-party campaigns are not taken seriously by the general public,” Anderson said.

“They’re not treated as equals, even though they have access to the ballot and the theoretical possibility of winning a majority of votes in the Electoral College. They’re not given coverage in the mainstream media, by and large, and they’re not included in the televised debates,” Anderson said.

“They’re relegated, instead, to the role of spoiler, as if somehow their presence in the campaign spoils an election. That is a huge block to have to overcome,” Anderson said.

It’s not just the campaigns that get shortchanged in the process, Cobb campaign spokesman Blair Bobier told the AFP.

“What people are going to get with the televised debates are scripted, staged events that won’t resemble at all an actual debate. There won’t be a discussion of any of the real serious issues facing this country,” Bobier said.

For example, there’s the burning issue with the war in Iraq.

“You have two candidates in George Bush and John Kerry who support the continuation of the Iraq war. Ralph Nader opposes the war, and so does 50 percent of the American public. But their viewpoint is not going to be represented,” Zeese said.

Nader isn’t alone in opposing the continuation of the Iraq war effort. Badnarik, Cobb and Peroutka all oppose the war as well.

“It’s clear that the Bush and Kerry campaigns are doing anything they can to exclude alternative viewpoints from being put out into the mainstream,” Badnarik campaign spokesman Stephen Gordon told the AFP.

“Nowhere else in American life do we give people two choices and say take it or leave it,” Anderson said. “If you went to buy a car, and the salesman told you that you had two choices, two models, and that was it, take it or leave it, you’d spin your heels and walk out. Or if you were at the shoe store, and you were told that you had two choices, one from Company X and one from Company Y, take it or leave it, you’d head out the door.

“Democracy is strong enough to withstand the challenge of different points of view,” Anderson said.

“I personally think it would energize democracy by allowing people who currently feel like their views aren’t represented by the two major parties to feel like they can vote their conscience instead of voting for the lesser of two evils or staying away from the ballot box altogether,” Anderson said.

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