Third parties and presidential debates

October 27, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When the Commission on Presidential Debates held a seminar here the other day reviewing the 1996 debates and looking ahead to 2000, much was said about diminished voter interest. Considering the relatively lackluster Bob Dole challenge to Bill Clinton, it wasn't any great surprise.

Audience reaction

Audiences for the debates, after increasing in 1992 for the

three-way exchanges among Mr. Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot, slipped when Mr. Perot was denied participation and the other two contenders had it out between them.

No one in the sessions considering low voter interest or the debate criteria that excluded Mr. Perot suggested that his absence was what caused the slippage.

But Clay Mulford, his lawyer dealing with the issue of his exclusion, did make the point that just as Mr. Perot had injected the issue of a balanced budget into the 1992 campaign, his participation might have elevated campaign finance, another of his pet issues, to the fore during rather than after the 1996 election.

The whole matter brought into focus whether the commission's criteria for admission to the 1996 debates was too narrow. The commission stipulated that only candidates who had a "realistic" (as opposed to a theoretical) chance to be elected would be invited. On that basis, Professor Richard Neustadt of Harvard, chairman of the advisory committee on candidate selection for the commission, explained why Ross Perot, who had been ruled in in 1992, was ruled out in 1996.

In 1992, Mr. Neustadt said, the fact that Mr. Perot had been running as high as 40 percent in the polls prior to his sudden withdrawal in July led his advisory committee to consider that strength when he got back into the race on Oct. 1.

Pivotal candidacy

Reports that he was surging in several states, Mr. Neustadt said, convinced his committee to consider whether Mr. Perot in the end might win enough electoral votes to force the election into the House of Representatives. It was concluded that he might, so it was recommended that he be included in the debates.

In 1996, however, Mr. Perot was excluded, the professor indicated, because of his much lower standing in the polls and because there was no evidence at all that he could win some electoral votes and threaten to force the election into the House.

But the commission's criteria did not ever say that a candidate should be included for any reason other than having a "realistic" chance to be elected. And any notion that Mr. Perot, even if he could force the election into the House, could then be elected was ludicrous. With each state having one vote and the Republicans in the majority in 28, they obviously would have picked Dole if it came to that.

There is no question that Mr. Perot's exclusion from the 1996 debates demolished any outside chance he may have had to be elected. Indeed, Mr. Mulford said, the negative impact of his rejection was itself devastating -- reinforcing the idea that he couldn't win.

The discussion focused on the obvious dilemma: how to let the voters hear the views of the candidates who could become president and not exclude one or more others whose views might have an impact on both the issue discussion and the election itself.

Thresholds

One questioner after a debate between Messrs. Neustadt and )) Mulford suggested a different "threshold" for participation in the debates that would accommodate a candidate of Mr. Perot's strength and contribution to the issue discussion but exclude third-party candidates.

But Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, notes the difficulty of deciding which candidates advancing which issues should be included.

In all this, panelist Frank Sesno of CNN pointed out an obvious explanation for slipping voter interest in the debates between 1992 and 1996.

In 1992, the economy was in trouble and in 1996 Mr. Clinton was riding high on peace and prosperity. Some in the audience suggested that interest fell because the news media proclaimed Mr. Dole a loser from the start and said it should focus on issues, not the "horse race."

But Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, noted that most voters decide on their personal feelings toward the candidates, not their stands on specific issues. Besides, he noted, there is plenty of information available on where they stand, but unfortunately voters are "choosing not to be informed."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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