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The system isn’t rigged: your candidate just didn’t do well

| Friday, September 30, 2016

On September 28, 2016, a letter to the editor (“Why I am Boycotting the Presidential Debate”) was published. The author of this letter argues that Libertarian Gary Johnson’s absence from Monday’s presidential debate reduced the quality of its dialogue and went against American democracy. Despite trying to assert otherwise, the author frames his letter as an argument for Gary Johnson, excluding key facts in his analysis. What is more, his argument for why Gary Johnson should be allowed to debate does not hold.

A concern of the author is that Monday’s presidential debate was “decidedly and unapologetically undemocratic” because “it favor[ed] major party candidates.” He elaborates that America was founded on the principle of democracy, where all are heard. While this definition is generally true, it is not enough to argue that “favoring” the major party candidates in a debate is undemocratic. The United States has always been a “two party” democratic system. Since the presidential election of 1796—the first after George Washington resigned—candidates aligned to one of two parties. Third parties have rarely gained national recognition. The American Party, Progressive Party, and Socialist Party are exceptions. Even then, these third parties did not win the presidency.

While third parties may not win major elections, their presence is evidence enough to indicate that citizens are upset with the major parties. People who support third party candidates are heard, even if their candidates are not. Major party candidates listen to supporters of third party candidates because they voice the strongest dissatisfaction with the current system. Being able to compromise and unite with third party supporters means greater chances of victory. Third party candidates do change politics, despite not making it into presidential debates. The two party system is structured how it has always been. If one is to claim a major component of the American electoral process is undemocratic because major parties are more present than third parties, then America has never been democratic.

I would like to answer the main question the author poses: why Gary Johnson was excluded from debating. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) seeks to provide information to the voters via debates, as the author states. What he fails to address is the process by which the CPD selects participants. On top of Constitutional eligibility and appearance on enough state ballots to win a majority of electoral votes, the CPD set a minimum 15 percent national approval threshold for any candidate to qualify for a presidential debate. This threshold has been in effect since 2000, after numerous academic studies suggested this number would be substantially inclusive to candidates without lessening the quality of debate. To determine whether a candidate meets this threshold, the CPD assesses the average of five national polls right before the debate.

Gary Johnson is constitutionally eligible to be President. He is on the ballot in 50 states. Where he falls short is in the national polls. In the polls used by the CPD, Johnson did not score above 13 percent at the time the CPD decided who qualified for the debate. Even if the CPD were to use different polls, Johnson would not qualify; the largest percentage Johnson currently has is 13 percent. Johnson fails to meet the requirements to debate, fair and square. Some may argue that the system is rigged, but this 15 percent threshold is not unattainable. In 1968, 1980, and 1992, third party candidates all qualified for the presidential debate with approval ratings above 15 percent — they in fact set the precedent that would become the 15 percent threshold.

It is also important to note that while the CPD may comprise solely Democratic and Republican members, it is because these are the majority parties. They have more people. Despite what Wikipedia may say, the CPD is not “controlled” by either party (or by both parties collaborating to influence this organization). According to the CPD website, the CPD “receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate.” While members may be aligned to a major party, the CPD is truly nonpartisan and unbiased, contrary to the author’s accusation.

At the beginning of the letter, the author makes a pointed jab at the debating candidates: He has grown tired of “being lied to.” This blanket statement grossly mischaracterizes one of the candidates. While one of the debaters Monday night is the most dishonest politician running for office, the other is the second most honest political candidate seeking office. These ratings come from Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-checking database. The author’s decision to call the debate a “quasi-celebration of […] hate-filled propaganda” is inaccurate. Yes, one candidate did make predominantly hateful, and false statements, but the other patiently waited to speak in turn, offering accurate and poised responses to the questions.

Another observation: Jill Stein — who is Constitutionally eligible and on enough state ballots to win the election — is not brought up once in the author’s article. Stein, who has the same CPD qualifications as Johnson, was also barred from debating. I do not see the author getting upset about this. If the author were supportive of the democracy he claims to champion, he would not have focused solely on Gary Johnson. I cannot help but feel that his bias towards Johnson (stated in his conclusion) influenced his feelings towards Monday’s debate and the CPD.

In an election, there will be winners and there will be losers. That is the nature of the beast. No two candidates are the same. Some will be privy to benefits denied to others because of their performance. This is not because of a rigged system. It is due to a candidate’s inadequacy. Gary Johnson has known since the beginning of his campaign he needed to poll above 15 percent to debate—at the very least he should have known. He did not accomplish that. If a candidate cannot perform to expected standards, then he or she cannot partake of the benefits. It is as simple as that.


Liam Maher


Sept. 28

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor can be submitted by all members of the Notre Dame community. To submit a letter to the Viewpoint Editor, email viewpoint@ndsmcobserver.com

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  • Jerry Blackwood

    When Johnson was within the margin of error for debate inclusion CNN excluded millenials from their poll. That’s 1/3 of the electorate excluded. Even if you used the “likely voter” method, that’s still 1/6 excluded. All polls appear to be under polling independents. Fox poll by a 1 to 5 margin. That’s about 50% of the electorate. So you are suggesting that changing polling methods to exclude almost half of the electorate where 3rd parties draw their suppport when a 3rd party does poll high enough to be included is not rigged and is “fair and square”? You have a very distorted opinion of what the word fair means!

    • Liam Maher

      The poll you are referring to also states that it includes only “subgroups with enough unweighted cases to produce a sampling error of +/- 8.5 percentage points or less.” So only sample sizes large enough to overcome major error were accepted. The 18-34 age bracket you refer to was not the only statistic to be removed from data. These polls do make things difficult, because decisions like these can have resounding effects. If the poll were to erroneously include data that gave Johnson an 8.5% increase, that would be an unfair boost in his favor. Political polls are a tricky thing in this sense, because you have to be very meticulous in deciding what gets included and what gets excluded in order to retain accuracy.

      I would like to emphasize that this article does not endorse “changing polling methods.” What I argue here is that, given current debate and CPD standards, Johnson did not make the cut. Even if the CNN poll were faulty, there are four other polls where he did not reach above 13%. If CNN had included the data and potentially given Johnson a boost in his rating, it still probably would not have changed anything.

      Thank you for taking the time to read this article!


      • mmortal03

        “I would like to emphasize that this article does not endorse “changing polling methods.””
        And why *doesn’t* it endorse changing polling methods, if the polling methods are, indeed, flawed? Please see my response above on how the specific polling question that is being asked biases the polling results against third parties achieving the 15%.

        • Liam Maher

          Your argument about the question wording is reasonable; I won’t try to refute that. The way the poll is worded very possibly affected the data outcome. What I will say is that the “flaw” you refer to is a flaw that every poll has. When data is uncertain (as was the data for 18-34 year olds in the CNN poll), including it or excluding it will have serious effects. Whether or not CNN had included the data, it would have been skewed so much it would not have been conclusive. Excluding it is usually the safest and simplest option to understand, because–when it comes to political science–making a claim and being wrong is worse than not making any claim at all.

          Even if the wording of a question is neutral, there isn’t a real way to “change” polling methods so that this uncertainty will go away. To lessen the effects of uncertainty (and/or counter a biased conclusion), you can use several polls and average them to get a more accurate picture. That is why the CPD uses a conglomerate of five polls (not just one) to calculate who makes the 15% line: so that even if a poll is biased, they are balanced out by other, more accurate polls (or polls who may be biased the other way).

          It is possible that the CNN poll could have been biased, shortchanging Gary Johnson. It is improbable, though. The other polls gave similar results to the CNN poll (with Johnson not cracking 13% in any of them), so it is safe to say that the CNN poll is not too biased in its conclusions. Even if the CNN poll had given Johnson the largest possible boost, it would not have been enough to get him in the debate.

          • mmortal03

            Yeah, like I said, what I’m more concerned with is not happenstance such as the CNN poll, but the systematic way in which *all* the major polls are wording the question that is used to determine access to the debates. Applying the logic you presented about statistical averages, if all the major polls word the question in a way that biases the results, then the average will be no less biased by this. 🙂

          • Liam Maher

            Right. I guess what I would say is that political polls have used this question wording and continue to use it to this day. One could argue that people are typically interested in only listening to the candidate they want to vote for. Because of this, asking “if the election were today, who would you vote for?” is the same as asking “who do you want to hear at the debate?” Since these polls have multiple uses, it is important that the questions are not too narrowly-tailored to the debate.

            One could also argue that asking “who do you want to hear at the debate?” Is not an accurate gauge of a candidate’s likelihood to get votes. There may be people who want to hear a candidate debate simply for amusement, or to reinforce their disapproval of a candidate. This undermines the purpose of the debate. As I mention in the article, the debates are meant to give voters information about the candidate they want to vote for, but only if there is enough general interest in voting for a candidate. Poll questions have to be worded in such a way as to measure how interested people are in voting for someone, not just hearing them debate. This is a possible explanation for why poll questions may be worded how they are.

          • mmortal03

            “I guess what I would say is that political polls have used this question wording and continue to use it to this day.”

            They can continue asking that form of the question, it’s just not the appropriate question to decide the debate participants.

            “One could argue that people are typically interested in only listening to the candidate they want to vote for. Because of this, asking “if the election were today, who would you vote for?” is the same as asking “who do you want to hear at the debate?” Since these polls have multiple uses, it is important that the questions are not too narrowly-tailored to the debate.”

            Think about what you are suggesting. I mean, based on that logic, for which we have no evidence for, let’s not even try to have a democracy with the free exchange of ideas — let’s be sure to make it *extraordinarily* difficult, by misapplying the intent of poll questions and using arbitrary thresholds, to have more than two options represented on stage. It’s such an anti-intellectual and anti-egalitarian perspective to assume people to have.

            And, as if there aren’t enough people out there who are undecided and would like to have more perspectives presented on stage to at least get equal consideration. I mean, people are currently spreading the idea that the third debate should be cancelled because it would only give Trump more negative air time. Think about if there were more than two options up there — then there would be more time for substance, and less time for Trump.

            “There may be people who want to hear a candidate debate simply for amusement, or to reinforce their disapproval of a candidate. This undermines the purpose of the debate.”

            I’d prefer to err on that side than on yours. Keep in mind that you, yourself, have been assuming one, limited reasoning for people to want a candidate on stage. I’m suggesting that people have many different reasons that can all be considered effectively by changing the applicable question.

  • mmortal03

    One of the main problems is the wording of the poll questions themselves. The wrong sort of question is being asked, which translates into a much more difficult path for third party candidates to achieve the 15%.
    The wording of the question currently being asked by the polls is along the lines of “If the election were held today, who would you most likely vote for?”
    That sort of question is explicitly *not* asking people which candidates they might like to see on the debate stage, or even which candidate they might *ideally* want to become president.
    No, it’s asking them a question about their *voting strategy* on election day, which is simply not the same thing as asking them which candidates they believe should have their voice heard in the debates.
    Because of the winner take all circumstances of our voting system, most people on election day are strategically going to vote for the lesser of two evils whenever they don’t believe that their ideal candidate could win.
    Therefore, if you, instead, asked people which candidates they would like to see on the debate stage, or which candidate they would ideally like to become president, I suspect you would get much higher percentages of support for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.