Why No Third Party Candidate Is Likely To Qualify For The Presidential Debates

Qualifying for the presidential debates was never going to be easy for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The Commission on Presidential Debates had already set a threshold of 15 percent national polling support to qualify for the debates, but Monday the commission announced which five polls it would use to arrive at that average – and it became clear what an enormous hurdle it will be for Johnson and Stein.

Impossible? No. But it’s extremely unlikely that either candidate will be standing on stage alongside Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this fall.

Here’s why.

When the commission makes its final decision on eligibility in mid-September, it will be taking a simple average of the most recent poll results from ABC/Washington Post, NBC/WSJ, Fox News, CBS/NYT and CNN/ORC, all regarded as reliable and methodologically sound.

As things stand now, Johnson comes closer to that 15 percent bar, but still falls short. The simple average of Johnson’s numbers from those five polls today is 10.2 percent. He reaches a high point of 12 percent in the recent CBS/NYT and Fox News polls, and dips down to eight percent in the latest poll, conducted by ABC/Washington Post. Stein’s name did not even make it into the July CBS/NYT poll nor the Fox News poll from August.

With about one month left until the commission calculates the average, there is still time for any or all of these five pollsters to release new national results. However, given that Johnson has only ever peaked at 13 percent in a CNN/ORC poll from July, and Stein peaked at seven percent in an earlier poll by the same pollster, their odds of reaching an average of 15 percent seem slim.

This election’s been marked by wild, unpredictable polls, but that inconsistency only applies to the majority party candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. The graph above shows poll results, between May 1 and today, from the five pollsters chosen by the commission. Our local regression, or the colored trend lines that show the general progression for each candidate, dances up and down the charts for Clinton and Trump, especially considering this is a small subset of recent numbers from five acclaimed pollsters. But for the third party candidates, their lines remain relatively regular, suggesting their numbers have not gone through the dramatic variation of Clinton’s and Trump’s numbers.

That being said, the fact that the Libertarian and Green Party candidates are polling high enough to even prompt speculation about their inclusion in the debates is impressive, given their final popular votes four years ago. Both Johnson and Stein barely registered in the 2012 general election results, reaching .99 and .36 percent of the popular vote respectively.

The current numbers indicate a significant gain in third party candidates’ popularity, likely because they are up against two of the most unpopular candidates in recent history. But those gains are unlikely to tip the scales enough to add a third wheel to the presidential debates this fall.

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