Debate Exclusion Harms Voters

by Will Hix // Published June 23, 2011
Since the 1948 radio debate between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen, Republican primary voters have been able to evaluate the merits of their party's presidential candidates by hearing them discuss the issues face to face. However, former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was denied that opportunity last week when CNN barred him from participating in a debate at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, the state where the first 2012 Republican presidential primary election will be held. CNN did not provide him a podium at the debate despite his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial victories in a Democratic-leaning state, third-place finish in the Conservative Political Action Conference's 2011 straw poll and strong libertarian credentials, which include having a $1.4 billion budget surplus when finishing his second term. A politician scorned, Johnson criticized the decision and insisted he will continue his campaign despite the snubbing - he even posted a YouTube video that includes his responses to each question asked at the debate.

Governor Johnson's exclusion comes at a crucial time in the primary season when many Republican candidates are being evaluated for the first time on a national scale as they debate important issues including health care, the economy, and foreign policy. As the first debate that included frontrunner Mitt Romney, the New Hampshire debate provided a prime opportunity for lesser-known candidates to differentiate themselves, just as Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann did by surprising pundits and the media with her strong performance at the debate. Primary campaigns usually begin with a wide field of candidates who span the ideological spectrum that is slowly whittled down as successful candidates draw more support and less popular contenders withdraw. In contrast with general elections, which usually feature two strong, party-backed candidates, the primary season provides a unique opportunity for multifarious voices to be heard by a wider audience - indeed perhaps the most adventurous time in our politics for hearing dissenting voices like  Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Al Sharpton on the Democratic side and Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Ron Paul on the Republican side. Johnson's credibility is not in doubt, but his libertarian views have aroused doubt regarding his ability to energize the party base.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the situation is the ground on which CNN stood to exclude Johnson. The network justified its decision by imposing an objective criterion: participants must have garnered an average of 2% support in three nationwide surveys conducted by accredited polling organization. However, according the to Johnson campaign, the governor met the polling requirement. As Conor Friedersdorf from The Atlantic observed, "in most polls, the margin of error is such that everyone who actually understands statistics knows folks polling at 1 percent and 3 percent are tied." Moreover, in a video response to the ruling, Johnson's campaign claimed that several successful primary candidates also polled at 1% at this point in their candidacy, including one candidate, Michael Dukakis, and two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

At the core of every modern, free democracy rests the idea that important policy matters should be made after careful deliberation and consideration of the facts. This principle is grounded in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and of the press. Whether in Congress or the courtroom, our decision-makers rely upon exhaustive debate to determine which resolution best serves the needs of citizens and upholds the integrity of government. The election of capable candidates is arguably the most direct impact that the citizenry can have in this process. Voters rely on the media to create accurate portrayals of each candidate and present a fair opportunity for credible candidates to make their case to their constituents. CNN failed to provide voters the opportunity to evaluate Governor Johnson, instead relying on opinion polls of dubious importance.

More broadly, we need to challenge conventional approaches to general election debates, which regularly exclude candidates who are not from the major parties. For example, in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain held a debate immediately after revelations of the crisis on Wall Street that led to commitments of more than half a billion dollars for a temporary bailout. Many Americans were confused by the bailout, but Obama and McCain agreed on the issue and barely discussed it - and so we missed a great opportunity for a national conversation about its merits from a knowledgeable, diverse field of candidates. Multi-candidate debates in presidential primaries and many state races show that we can have meaningful debates with more than two candidates. Before making exclusionary decisions like CNN did, general election debate sponsors should establish sensible standards that lean toward inclusion, like those recommendations made by the Appleseed Citizens' Task Force. More information on this topic has been made available from Open Debates and Free & Equal. Additionally, Ballot Access News provides regular updates on issues related to democratic inclusivity, lest America drift toward the sort of "democracy" found today in countries like Russia. Then again, accommodating voter choice may not be so much of a chore if we implemented an electoral system like instant runoff voting.