Clinton-Trump debate sites plan for a third podium
With third-party candidates hovering near the threshold, the debate commission advises hosts to consider a bigger stage.
The venues that will host the presidential debates are drawing up plans for a three-person forum that would provide a lectern for a third-party candidate to stand on stage next to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The directive comes from producers working for the Commission on Presidential Debates and it’s meant, they say, to force the university hosts to be prepared and not as a reflection of the state of the race. But it could give supporters of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein hope as they push an alternative to the historically unpopular major party nominees.
“With [former Gov.] Gary Johnson polling in some places more than double digits, they might have, some of our production people may have said, ‘Just in case, you need to plan out what that might look like,’” Commission on Presidential Debates co-chair and former Bill Clinton White House Press SecretaryMike McCurry told POLITICO. “We won’t know the number of invitations we extend until mid-September.”
To participate in one of the four general-election debates (three for president, one for vice president), candidates must be eligible for the presidency and “appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College,” the commission announced last year. They also must have a level of support nationally of at least 15 percent as “determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”
Johnson is hovering around 8.8 percent in national polls, according to RealClearPolitics’ average, whereas Stein, when included in polling, is at around 3.8 percent. Despite being below the 15 percent cutoff, there might be some flexibility in getting someone like Johnson on stage. Frank Fahrenkopf, McCurry’s Republican counterpart and co-chair on the commission, told CNBC last week that the commission may “consider giving an inch” to a third-party candidate if he or she is close enough to the cutoff point.
“If someone came in and let’s say he was [polling] at 14.5 percent and the margin of error in five polls was 3 points, we are going to have to sit down and look at it,” Fahrenkopf said. “But right now that person would not be included.”
Representatives for the debate sites of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Washington University in St. Louis directed inquiries to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Hofstra University did not respond to a request for comment.
Late last month, Trump and the RNC also expressed displeasure at the debate commission’s schedule because two debates are scheduled the same night as NFL games.
But despite complaints and promises from the Trump campaign manager that a meeting would be scheduled, no meeting appears to have been set yet,McCurry said. Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to questions on Monday, though last week she said she would keep reporters apprised of any scheduled meetings.
Beyond the statement last week on how the debate schedule is set, the commission doesn’t plan to get more involved as it tries to avoid sparking a debate on the debates, the commission has repeatedly asserted. And even if there were more discussions to take place, they’d have to be directly between the campaigns, McCurry said.
If the two campaigns decide to have on their own a separate set of discussions about terms, the commission then considers their requests, McCurry said,something often called a “memorandum of understanding” that is traditionally drawn up between the two campaigns.
But it’s unlikely to change the schedule. Between sports, religious holidays, avoiding Fridays and Saturdays and scheduling the debate on a variety of days so as not to continuously harm one night of network prime-time lineups, the debate commission said it did the best it could with its Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday debate days.
Typically both campaigns accept the commission’s debate schedule as nearly sacrosanct. In 2012, the campaigns did not protest the debate schedule when each of the debates fell on big game days. Instead, the Romney and Obama campaigns negotiated directly with one another and developed the memorandum of understanding which they sent to the commission. The memorandum included such requests as the moderator not asking the candidates for a “show of hands” or similar calls for response and that the dressing rooms would be “comparable in size and in quality and proximity to the debate stage.”
McCurry said there’s been no formal meeting planned and only informal contact between the co-chairs and the Trump, Clinton and Johnson campaigns. The Trump campaign is in the process of trying to reach out to the Clinton campaign, McCurry noted, though representatives for the Trump, Clinton and Johnson campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
“Our posture is we design something we think is in the best interest of American citizens. It’s based on a lot of experience over time and we kind of set the table for the candidates and expect them to show up. We don’t take the posture that there’s a lot to negotiate except over simple logistics,” McCurry said.
But not everyone is criticizing Trump’s objection to the schedule. Prominent Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who helped in the negotiations during the primary debates among the various campaigns, suggested Trump has a point.
“The commission selects debate dates a year in advance so it can lock up venues and corporate sponsorships,” Ginsberg said in an interview recently. “This year, that’s a down side for a candidate wanting to get the maximum number of voters engaged in the debates since two conflict with NFL games. There’s nothing magic about needing a large venue and corporate sponsorships for a presidential debate. If those two dates are a problem for a candidate, they could be replaced by a television studio debate on days that would attract the maximum number of viewers to these events so crucial to Americans choosing their president.”
For its part, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta gave an official statement on Monday evening saying they’ve accepted and will be at all the debates.
“Secretary Clinton looks forward to participating in all three presidential debates scheduled by the independent debate commission,” Podesta said. “With so much at stake in the fall elections, she believes these debates will provide the American people with an important opportunity to hear from the candidates on issues critical to the country’s future. It is concerning that the Trump campaign is already engaged in shenanigans around these debates. It is not clear if he is trying to avoid debates, or merely toying with the press to create more drama.”
“Either way, our campaign is not interested in playing along with a debate about debates or bargaining around them,” he continued. “The only issue now is whether Donald Trump is going to show up to debate at the date, times, places and formats set by the commission last year through a bipartisan process. We will accept the commission’s invitation and expect Donald Trump to do the same.”