Finley: Let Gary Johnson debate

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Every voter in America will see Gary Johnson’s name on the ballot when they vote on Nov. 8. They should see him on the presidential debate stage next week as well.

Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and former Republican running as a Libertarian, has done what few third party candidates ever have: He’s qualified for the ballot in all states.

Given the unique nature of the 2016 presidential campaign, that alone should earn Johnson a seat alongside Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton when the first debate convenes Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates set a threshold of 15 percent support in an average of polls before a candidate can make the rostrum.

Johnson, who was in Detroit last week to speak to the Detroit Economic Club, reached 13 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, though the Real Clear Politics average of polls has him at just 8.3 percent.

If Johnson isn’t seated, it will be a disservice to the American electorate.

The biggest case for adding Johnson to the debates is that so many American voters are desperate for another option.

They are historically dissatisfied with the major candidate nominees. Clinton’s unfavorability rating stands at 55 percent, according to the RCP average; Trump’s is at 58 percent.

With voters holding such a negative view of the nominees presented by Republicans and Democrats, the debate commission should not lock them into a binary choice. Expose them to a viable third option, and many may take it.

Johnson argues correctly that were he allowed to participate in the three debates, his name recognition and support would go up. Right now, he says, most voters don’t know who he is or what he stands for. As he says, most pollsters first ask voters to choose between Clinton and Trump, and don’t include either his name or Green Party candidate Jill Stein until later in the survey. That, he says, artificially depresses his numbers.

Independent candidate Ross Perot, Johnson argues, was allowed on stage at the 1992 debates even though he was polling at between 7 and 9 percent. On Election Day, Perot captured 19 percent of the vote and heavily influenced the outcome of an election that was won by Bill Clinton.

Johnson has a deal for the debate commission. Let him on stage for the Hofstra debate and let voters compare his style and message to that of Clinton and Trump.

And if the post-debate polls don’t get the Libertarian ticket to the 15 percent mark, Johnson will voluntarily stand down for the subsequent debates.

That’s a fair deal, and the commission should take it.

Polls consistently show that nearly half of voters are backing either Clinton or Trump not because they support them, but because they vehemently oppose the other candidate. A poll last week of Illinois voters found 40 percent want another choice.

They have one. But they may not know it. Welcoming Johnson to the debates would give them a look at another option, and respond to the demands of this highly unusual election season.

Nolan Finley’s book “A Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.