On the Necessity of Opening Up Our Duopolized Debates to Third Party and Independent Voices

A dynamic three or four-person race looks to be developing in Virginia's fifth congressional district, for the seat currently held by Democrat Tom Perriello. Republicans have nominated careerist politician Robert Hurt, a move that grassroots conservatives promised to oppose by supporting an independent candidate for the office on the grounds that the likes of Hurt would not represent the people of the district but rather the interests of the Republican Party's political establishment. Tea party groups that have not sold their souls to the Republican party machine are now beginning to rally behind independent candidate Jeff Clark. An editorial in the Charlottesville Daily Progress criticizes the Republican's self-serving attempt to keep the independent out of any and all debates, and calls for his inclusion in such forums:
Is a political debate supposed to be for the benefit of the voters — or the politicians? Both, or else the politicians wouldn’t submit themselves to the process; after all, they want to win votes, not risk losing them.

But for the benefit of democracy, voters should come first. And for that reason, they should get the chance to hear all the candidates on the ballot, so they are better prepared to cast an intelligent vote.

State Sen. Robert Hurt, Republican, is currently locked in a debate about a debate: whether he is willing to allow third-party candidate Jeffrey C. Clark to join a session with himself and Democrat Rep. Tom Perriello, the incumbent. Mr. Perriello has agreed to Mr. Clark’s participation. Late last week, Mr. Hurt said that, no, he does not want a three-way debate. “We cannot allow the important debate in this election to be sidetracked by a candidate who is not serious about his campaign or his ability to win,” he said in a written statement. [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Clark was serious enough to get the requisite number of signatures on a petition to place his name on the ballot. He is a legitimate candidate. His ability to win? Doubtful. His Tea Party candidacy — if it runs true to the form demonstrated by previous third-party efforts — might be expected to pull no more than 3 percent of the vote.

But that doesn’t mean a third-party candidacy is valueless. If a third party can make a decent showing — even at just a few percentage points — it can send a real message to the winning side. Voters can register a strong statement even if their candidate doesn’t win. Thus they can affect, if not the election, then the direction of governance that follows the election.

But mainstream politicians often refuse to debate third-party contenders. They fear risking the chance that votes that might have been theirs would instead be transferred to the “nonviable” candidate. Because Mr. Hurt and Mr. Clark are both seeking conservatives’ votes, Mr. Hurt is perceived as protecting his own interests by refusing to let the Tea Partyer in on a three-way debate. In addition, he is embroiled in a further debate over whether he backtracked on an earlier statement that he would be willing to debate Mr. Clark. He was quoted as saying, “Absolutely.”

His campaign later said his answer was not meant to be a direct reply about whether he would allow Mr. Clark to debate, and that in fact he is not willing to debate him.
The statement also suggested that Mr. Perriello’s motivations for allowing Mr. Clark to debate were less than altruistic. If Mr. Clark’s presence could pull votes from Mr. Hurt, then that vote loss could help Mr. Perriello — and so it is to the incumbent’s advantage to allow the Tea Party candidate on stage.

This is an interesting sub-debate, but it is not the main issue. The main issue is the voters. And the voters would be best served by seeing and hearing all three candidates debate. All three will be on the ballot in November. Before they pull that lever, voters should be as well-informed as possible, and a three-way debate could be an immediate and effective form of political education.
This editorial is, of course, noteworthy for the fact that it calls for the inclusion of the independent candidate in the debate. More often than not, the mainstream media willingly collude with the ideologues of the two-party state in their efforts to ensure that as few people as possible realize there are alternatives to the stooges of the Democratic and Republican parties. Consider a recent example from Florida, which happened to be the subject for my most recent column at CAIVN:
Last week, the Florida Press Association and Florida Society of Newspaper Editors held their annual convention, where they hosted a forum for the Sunshine State's candidates for US Senate. Four candidates were invited, Republican-turned-Independent Charlie Crist, Republican Marco Rubio, and two Democrats, Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene. One would not know it from this line-up, but there are more than seven declared third party and independent candidates for the office, including Libertarian Alex Snitker and Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro, both of whom have qualified for ballot access.

Snitker attended the forum to protest his exclusion from the event. According to a press release, the Libertarian stepped up to the floor microphone and asked to be included in the forum, but the request was denied by FPA President Dean Ridings who called for security to escort Snitker from the room.

The organization's justification for excluding Snitker from the event reveals how the media actively support the ruling political establishment in the guise of impartial objectivity. Only candidates who had received 10% support in a major poll were invited to participate in the forum. This sounds reasonable enough at first. However, third party and independent candidates are rarely, if ever, included in any major polls! The majority of such polls, many of them commissioned by major media outlets themselves, allow respondents to choose between Democrats and Republicans by name, but only offer the choice of "some other candidate" as an alternative.

The Florida Senate race is admittedly something of an exception. Crist's independent candidacy simply cannot be ignored since he is the state's governor. Nonetheless, if inclusion in a forum is conditional upon demonstration of support in major polls, but candidates are excluded by name from those very polls, then this seemingly "objective" criterion of support is nothing more than a fraud by means of which independent and third party candidates are barred from consideration as viable or legitimate alternatives to their Democratic and Republican counterparts.

The article goes on to list a number of such incidents from recent years. In the comments, however, Richard Winger responded by arguing that the overall impression of the piece is "too gloomy," stating: "In 2002, at least one minor party or independent candidate for Governor, US Senator, or US House-at-large did debate his or her major party opponents in 30 states. In 2006, that was true in 19 states." Fair enough. But still, third party and independent candidates for office should demand that they be included in every possible candidate forum. Their explicit exclusion from such events reinforces the impression that they are not "serious" candidates, while protesting such exclusions can go a long way toward demonstrating that they are indeed "serious" candidates.


Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, mainstream politicians sometimes use third-party candidates for tactical purposes. There are plenty of cases, I presume, when a Republican candidate will say that he won't participate in a debate until a Green candidate is invited, to discomfit the Democratic candidate, or when a Democrat will boycott a debate until a Libertarian is invited, if the latter's candidacy is expected to hurt the Republican. It might be worth a try to turn the debate question into an issue for party primaries, if activists can pool their strength to promise their support for a candidate who'll sign a pledge making his or her participation in general-election debates conditional on admitting independents to the events. Whether it would make a difference is hard to say until someone tries it -- unless someone has already.

d.eris said...

Yes, if I remember correctly, that kind of debate-forum strategery took place in the NJ gov race last year, as well as in the MA Senate election. Something like what you're talking about could also be used in the sort of divide and conquer fundraising strategy I mentioned recently (i.e. why shouldn't the Greens fundraise from top Republican donors, the Libertarians from Democrats).

In the ideal case, there would be at least both a Libertarian and a Green working to benefit from the Republican and Democratic conventional wisdom.

Samuel Wilson said...

Since Libertarian and Greens often acknowledge each other as the two real independent parties, perhaps they should agree that whenever one is implicitly invited to join a debate as part of a Bipolarchy divide-and-conquer strategy, that one should insist that the other also be admitted. That is, a Libertarian won't play along with a Democrat's grandstanding unless a the Democrat also promises to welcome a Green candidate, and a Green will return the favor if a Republican insists on Green participation. That would definitely put the burden of sincere inclusion on both Bipolarchy parties, and any subsequent silence on their part on the subject of inviting independents to debates would be very telling.

d.eris said...

Indeed. Though, that kind of a strategy could backfire if the candidate takes a really hard line, potentially resulting in no alternatives included in debates, if, for instance, the G says he or she will not participate if the L is not included, and then the L is excluded.

A similar strategy might be for the one who is included – because of significant showing in polls – to lobby for the other's inclusion and then, if the other is still excluded, bring that fact up in the debate or forum itself.

In any case, all ballot qualified indy and third party candidates should push hard for inclusion in debates and forums. But the fact that this is often made conditional upon some amount of support in polls, demonstrates the importance of getting third party and indy candidates included in the polls by name.