Against this backdrop, POLITICO has polled the pollsters to get their thoughts on using polling numbers to determine which candidates get access to the debate stage. The article's headline should be chilling to anyone following presidential politics: "Pollsters: Don't trust us to winnow GOP field - Networks' use of polls for debate entry comes at a time of increasing doubts about their accuracy."
Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University, and the past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research told POLITICO yesterday that "Polls are being used to do a job that they're really not intended for," and that "polling has become increasingly unreliable because Americans are harder to reach." His piece in the New York Times, "What's the Matter With Polling?" says election polling is "in near crisis."
"We are less sure how to conduct good survey research now than we were four years ago, and much less than eight years ago. And don't look for too much help in what the polling aggregation sites may be offering. They, too, have been falling further off the track of late. It's not their fault. They are only as good as the raw material they have to work with. In short, polls and pollsters are going to be less reliable. We may not even know when we're off base. What this means for 2016 is anybody's guess."
In the upcoming GOP debate, the debate access rules allow "rounding" of the polling result to the nearest whole percentage point. Seriously? This means that a candidate polling at 2.5 percent will make it onto the stage, but a candidate at 2.4 percent won't.
And as if allowing for "rounding" wasn't bad enough, there is a margin of error to take into consideration. POLITICO's Steven Shepard points out that "Jeb Bush, for example, is at 7 percent in this week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but the statistical margin of error means he's really between 1 and 14 percent." That's some range.
So this is exactly why it is unconscionable for the Commission on Presidential Debates to keep its current criteria that averages together surveys and only allows candidates above a certain threshold into the fall Presidential debates. If the CPD maintains this polling hurdle, then for as long as you live and as long as your children live, there will never be an Independent candidate on the debate stage.
As we have seen with Republican candidates, getting on the main debate stage means everything.
Shepard reports: "Carly Fiorina was at 1 percent in polls before the Fox News debate and, after earning a place on the main stage at the CNN debate, rocketed to 11.5 percent in the current average."
The point is this: It's all about the debates.
The CPD is a privately funded organization run by the former head of the RNC and a former DNC and Clinton operative. They make
all the rules for who gets into the fall debates. The CPD is supposed to be a "non-partisan" group that makes "objective" rules, but the members are all Democratic and Republican Party insiders chosen by other party insiders.
Since 2000, they have used an unfair rule that forces Independent candidates to meet an impossible polling threshold only 7 weeks before the general election. No candidate who did not compete in a primary has scaled this barrier since the televised debates began in 1960. Not even Ross Perot would have met the criteria in 1992, when the Bush and Clinton campaigns both decided it was in their best interests to have Perot in the debates.
More than a year ago, the Directors of the CPD were presented with extensive evidence demonstrating that the margin of error in a three-way race for President would be 8 percent in a September poll taken just two months before the general election. Now, less than a year before the first debate will be held, with ballot access deadlines looming, the CPD has done nothing to Change the Rule.
Pollsters in yesterday's POLITICO story issued a "unanimous warning" not to trust polls for the purposes of determining debate access.
"It's like asking a scale that can only tell pounds to measure ounces," Zukin said. "They're just not that finely calibrated. ... I think polls can do a good job talking about tiers of candidates in name recognition. That's all that polls can do. But they can't tell the difference between Bobby Jindal, who's not in the debate, and Chris Christie, who is."
This is precisely why for over a year we have strongly encouraged the CPD to consider an alternative pathway (other than polling) for an Independent candidate to gain access to the debate stage next fall.
The time for the CPD to act is now: Open up the presidential debates. Make room for an independent voice. Admit what the rest of Americans - and now even the pollsters - already know: the current system of determining who gets on the debate stage isn't fair and it isn't working.