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How does a 3rd party or independent candidate qualify for presidential debate?

Dec 29, 2023

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General election presidential debates have three requirements to qualify. If a candidate doesn’t meet them, they won’t be on the stage. 

To qualify, a candidate must:

  • Be constitutionally eligible to hold the Office of President of the United States.
  • Appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College.
  • Have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate, as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly reported results at the time of the determination.

These rules are set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the events. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party do not have a say. The commission explained that it wants the debates to educate voters, but not act as a springboard for a lesser-known candidate. 

“It was the CPD’s judgment that the 15% threshold best balanced the goal of being sufficiently inclusive to invite those candidates considered to be among the leading candidates, without being so inclusive that invitations would be extended to candidates with only scant public support, thereby jeopardizing the voter education purpose of the debates,” the commission’s website stated.

The last time an independent candidate participated in a debate was 1992, when businessman Ross Perot joined former President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. 

It could happen again in 2024.

There is already one independent candidate in the race: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. While he has hit the 15% threshold in multiple polls, based on the Commission’s rules, none of them count.

The Commission has a very short list of polling organizations that they consider. In 2020, they used polls from: ABC/Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist. Even if a candidate received 15% support in another reputable organization’s poll, like Monmouth University or Quinnipiac University, it would not count.

The polls also have to be conducted in the direct lead up to the debates, which begin in September. For that reason, polls conducted in 2023 or early 2024 won’t count either.

The commission has yet to release the recognized polling organizations and more detailed criteria for 2024. They didn’t make that announcement for the 2020 race until August 28 of that year.

Other independent or third-party candidates are considering a run, like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.

The organization No Labels is also working to get on the ballot in all 50 states so it can nominate a candidate. 

In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein attempted to participate in the debates. She showed up at the venue the day of for interviews with the press but was escorted off the Hofstra University campus by police.

Stein ultimately received about 1% of the vote and was considered a spoiler for Hillary Clinton. This year, candidates said they don’t want to be spoilers, so they’re being more cautious before entering.

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[RAY BOGAN]

General election presidential debates have three requirements to qualify. If a candidate doesn’t meet them, they won’t be on the stage. 

To qualify, a candidate must: 1) be Constitutionally eligible to hold the office of President of the United States, 2) appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College, and 3) have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination. 

These rules are set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the events. The Republican and Democratic parties do not have a say. The Commission explained that they want the debates to educate voters, but not act as a springboard for a lesser known candidate. 

The commission explained: “It was the CPD’s judgment that the 15 percent threshold best balanced the goal of being sufficiently inclusive to invite those candidates considered to be among the leading candidates, without being so inclusive that invitations would be extended to candidates with only scant public support, thereby jeopardizing the voter education purpose of the debates.”

The last time an independent candidate participated in a debate was 1992 when businessman Ross Perot joined President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. 

It could happen again in 2024. There is already one independent candidate in the race Robert F. Kennedy Jr. While he does not currently have five polls showing15 percent support, a Monmouth University poll from December 11 showed 6% of voters would definitely vote for him, while 15% said probably. 

Other independent or third party candidates are considering a run, like Senator Joe Manchin. The organization No Labels is working to get on the ballot in all 50 states so it can nominate a candidate. 

In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein attempted to participate in the debates. She showed up at the venue the day of for interviews with the press but was escorted off the Hofstra University campus by police. Stein ultimately received about one percent of the vote and was considered a spoiler for Hillary Clinton. This year, candidates said they don’t want to be spoilers, so they’re being more cautious before entering.

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