Unfortunately, the AWG could not agree on how to add an independent candidate to the stage - which could possibly be due to the group's composition. All but one of the group's members are strong partisans and professional political advisors who work for presidential candidates from the two major parties. Why on earth would any of them work to create more competition for the major party nominees?
Make no mistake: admitting a third candidate to the debates - something that has happened only once in the past 35 years - will jeopardize the current duopoly. Ross Perot showed that in 1992. Hence, the rule created by the Commission on Presidential Debates in 2000. No more Ross Perots.
On Wednesday, the same day the Annenberg report was released, Tom Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times headlined, "My Choice for President? None of the Above." It began: I don't recall a time when more people were running for president and fewer of them offered anything more than poll-tested generalities designed to rally their own bases."
Tens of millions of American heads were nodding.
There is an answer to what ails the polity. Americans, as the Annenberg report has proven, want a broader choice and the more reasonable public policy discussion that a third candidate will bring. (Friedman noted, "centrism...has a lot better chance of prolonging the American dream than either party alone.") It's time Americans got what they want and deserve.
But let's get back to the Annenberg report and the results of a survey they commissioned by the widely respected pollster Peter D. Hart and TargetPoint Consulting. One question is so important that it is worth quoting in its entirety:
"One element of the debates that has been discussed is the inclusion of third-party or independent candidates in presidential debates. Currently, for a third-party candidate or an independent to be included in a debate that person must have at least 15% in the national polls and have qualified for enough ballots that that person could win a majority of electoral votes. Which of these two statements comes closest to your point of view:
"Statement A: The rules for a third-party candidate inclusion should be relaxed so that it is easier for them to be part of the debate. Even if it is unlikely that they will win the presidency, it would make the major candidates respond to their ideas.
"Statement B: The rules for a third-party candidate inclusion should not be changed, because the third-party candidates take away from the central purpose of listening to and watching the two people who are most likely to become the president."
Respondents chose Statement A by a wide margin: 56% to 28%.
Among voters 18-34 years of age - a group of particular concern for the AWG - the margin was a stunning 62% for Statement A and just 19% for Statement B.
In other words, a large majority of Americans support allowing an independent candidate into in the debates, even if it is unlikely he or she can win the election.
In addition, in a separate, qualitative, focus group study, "respondents in Hart's focus groups favored 'making it easier to allow third-party candidates in on the debates,'" the AWG report stated.
Nevertheless, the members of the Working Group could not agree on a way to solve this evident problem. According to the report, they "considered the balance to be struck between ensuring a diversity of views, and giving voters the opportunity to consider the views of the candidates-the major party candidates-with the highest likelihood of being elected. On this question, there was not a consensus on the best solution."
Why no consensus? Maybe the answer is that the Annenberg Working Group is bi-partisan, not non-partisan. The Commission on Presidential Debates is bi-partisan, not non-partisan. And the Federal Election Commission is bi-partisan, not non-partisan. It should be no surprise to any of us that none of these folks have been unable to come up with a non-partisan solution that allows for independent candidates to compete in the presidential debates.
Members of the AWG included: Beth Myers, campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign and senior advisor to him during 2012, Robert Barnett, who worked on nine Democratic debate preparation teams; Bob Bauer, who has handled campaign-related legal issues for President Obama and many other Democrats (and is the husband of Anita Dunn, the co-chair of the AWG and President Obama's White House communications director); Joel Benenson, President Obama's lawyer since his first run for the White House; Charlie Black, described in the AWG bio as "one of America's leading Republican political strategists"; Rick Davis, Bob Dole's deputy campaign manager and John McCain's national campaign manager; Ben Ginsberg, the Republican analogue of Bob Bauer, representing the campaigns of Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and many other GOP politicians; Ron Klain, associate counsel in the Clinton White House and former Washington issues director for the Clinton/Gore campaign; Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign and co-founder of an ad agency with the Republican National Committee as a client; Neil Newhouse, chief pollster for the Romney campaign; Jim Perry, former advisor to Romney; Joe Rospars, chief digital strategist for the Obama campaign; Michael Sheehan, described as "one of America's leading communications trainers and strategists," working on the debate prep team of every Democratic president candidate since 1988; and Stuart Stevens, lead strategist for the Romney campaign.
Only one - one! - member of the 16-person Annenberg Working Group can be described as non-partisan: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
In summary, the AWG produced data showing conclusively:
- Viewership of the debates is dangerously and consistently declining. The proportion of voting-age Americans watching has gone from 61% of households in 1960, to 49% in 1980, to 37% in 1992, to 28% in 2012.
- More Americans than ever identify themselves as independents. The report puts the most recent figure at 42%, compared with 31% who say they are Democrats and 25% Republicans. "As important," says the report, "is the fact that 50% of those in the millennial generation, now ranging in ages from 18-33, described themselves as political independents in March 2014."
- Most Americans want to make it easier for a third candidate to appear on the debate stage. In addition to the survey results cited earlier, the respondents, by a margin of 47% to 41%, reject the main criterion for admission to the debates - that a candidate poll at least 15% in September.
The members discussed it, but they couldn't come to a consensus. There was some support on the AWG for jiggering the polling requirement: lowering it to 10% for the first debate, then raising it to 20% and then 25% for the subsequent two debates. This is an even more terrible rule than the one that currently exists - and, again, not surprising when you consider the makeup of the AWG.
No candidate in the past 50 years has polled at 10% in September (Perot was at 8%) without having first participated in a major-party primary. The cost of securing enough name recognition to poll that high is hundreds of millions of dollars - a sum that is nearly impossible to raise without the media attention and fundraising that accompany a validated candidacy. But a candidacy, by definition, can't be validated unless the media and donors know the candidate will be in the debates. That determination has to be made by late April (as it is for the Democrat and Republican), not in September, as the AWG seems to want - and as the Commission on Presidential Debates now requires.
Instead of offering a method of choosing the third debater, the AWG members noodled over format recommendations like banning audiences (except for Town Hall debates), enlarging "the pool of potential moderators," and using a "chess clock" for timing answers.
It's just a shame that they did not deal with the most important format change of all - one that would allow for an independent candidate to participate in the fall debates.
The problem with the debates can't be solved with a chess clock. We need to change the rules about who gets into the game.
Opening up the debates will help restore health to our American democracy. Broadening choices will almost certainly increase viewership and attention but, more important, the validation of an independent candidate through debate appearances will have an enormously beneficial effect on our political culture, making it less polarized and more innovative.
The Annenberg Working Group didn't provide the answer - just the data behind it. But the directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the 17 people who set the rules for who gets into the debates, can still do the right thing.