My Brief Regarding the Commission on Presidential Debates

I submitted a Proposed Brief in the case Level the Playing Field, Peter Ackerman and the Green and Libertarian parities filed against the Federal Election Committee regarding the CPD. Here's the argument I made: 
The purported interest of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) served by the use of a 15 percent polling threshold is actually undermined by the questions used in those polls. None of the polls which the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) use in assessing whether a candidate meets the 15 percent polling threshold required for inclusion in the debates asks the question, "Whom do you want to be president?" Instead, these polls ask some variation on the question, "If the Presidential election were held today, which candidate would you vote for?" 

These two questions measure different things and could lead to different outcomes. For many, voting remains a strategic choice. Some may prefer that a third-party candidate become president, but if the election were held today, they would strategically vote for a candidate of one of the two major political parties. (This is the case given our first-past-the-post voting system that precludes other voting system such as ranked choice voting (rank candidates 1, 2, 3) or range voting (rate candidates 1-10) that more precisely gauge actual voter preferences. At this time, ranked choice voting systems are only available at some local levels. Range voting is not used in any public elections in the U.S.)

The distinction goes to the heart of the CPD's asserted reason for using the polling threshold to exclude most candidates. When some suggested that an alternative criterion for inclusion in presidential debates should be whether a majority wanted the candidate to be in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort. Then-CPD Director and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said: "The issue who is who do you want to be president. It's not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate." Similarly, Paul Kirk, the then-co-chair of the CPD (now co-chairman emeritus) and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: "It's a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States."

However, as stated above, the polls relied upon by the CPD do not actually ask this question. Amici found in his own research, that the question posed by pollsters can be critical: for example, a funder put up the money for a poll with the Rasmussen polling firm which basically found that third party candidates Buchanan's and Nader's numbers doubled once the question was asked who they preferred to be president regardless of their chances of winning.
It's not an argument anyone remotely associated with the establishment wants to have: The CPD asserts that the question should be the "serious question of who would you prefer to be president" -- and then relies on polls, none of which ask that very question. [For overview, see "How Presidential 'Non-Opinion' Polls Drive Down Third Party Numbers and Facilitate Debate Exclusion".]

1 response
Thanks for the insight on how the CPD doesn't ask the right question! Thanks also for your Vote Pact idea--I hope lots of people do this. Have you considered the idea of pushing for ranked choice or range voting at the presidential level this year? Here's one way to do it: Another way is to immediately enact alternative voting systems in a state, making it easier for independents or third parties to win EC Votes. This is easier to make a difference for this year, but the Interstate Compact idea above is better in the long run.