Debate Commission to Keep ’15 Percent Rule’ for Presidential Candidates

The Democratic primary debate press filing room in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015. (Joseph Sohm/

Despite a lawsuit from the Libertarian and Green parties, the Commission on Presidential Debates is sticking to its 15 percent rule for inclusion in the general election debates.


“Their argument is they can’t get to 15 percent if they are not in the debate. We just think in the modern environment we are in that’s just not true,” said Commission on Presidential Debates Co-Chairman Mike McCurry during an event at George Washington University.

Co-Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said the commission has been sued over the same issue since 1988 and won every time. Fahrenkopf explained that 2008 was the only election the commission was not sued for the 15 percent rule but had to deal with issues surrounding whether then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were natural-born citizens.

“We have the same rule today – the 15 percent rule. Our commission spent a lot of time looking at this – whether to lower it, whether to raise it. There’s a great deal of controversy on how you go about doing it. We reached a determination – our commission did – that if it’s one month before the presidential election and you’re not at 15 percent in the five leading polls and these are not the kind of polls you have been reading about in the primaries,” Fahrenkopf said.

“If you look at those, there is usually 400 or 500 people involved in those polls. We’re talking about polls that are big polls that are over 1,000 people and then if you are 15 percent you are in. Ross Perot was in in 1992 and that’s the only time since we’ve been involved with it we have had three people.”

The moderator told Martha Raddatz, chief global affairs correspondent at ABC News, it is “totally plausible” this year that a third-party candidate could erode support from the Republican or Democrat nominee with only 10 percent support and tip the election. Raddatz was asked if the 15 percent rule is fair given that potential scenario.


“I mean, if those rules have applied for all these years I don’t really see why you would change it. I get your point. There are different venues where that candidate can talk and try to swing that election,” said Raddatz, who moderated the 2012 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has expressed interest in running as a third-party candidate if the GOP does not treat him fairly during the nomination process. Some Republican Party insiders have reportedly floated the idea of getting behind a conservative third-party alternative if Trump wins the GOP nomination.

McCurry shot down an idea of having an “undercard debate” for independent candidates in the general election.

“Is that the responsibility of our commission? We’ve elected to say no because we put on three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate and the logistical challenge for what is a fairly small nonprofit operation that does this because we work with the networks to put this on and others who support our work,” he said.


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