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How Presidential “Non-Opinion” Polls Drive Down Third Party Numbers and Facilitate Debate Exclusion

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This week, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced what polls it will utilize in excluding candidates from its debates.

The CPD says candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein must get 15 percent in polls conducted by “five national public opinion polling organizations” — ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation, Fox News, and NBC/Wall Street Journal.

Not only — as several have correctly argued — is the 15 percent threshold arbitrary and exclusionary, but these polls don’t actually ask voter preferences at all.

They all ask “If the presidential election were being held today for whom would you vote?” or some minor variation of that.

Who you want or prefer and what you would do in the voting booth may be very different things. These “public opinion polls” don’t actually measure opinion — they are a non-opinion polls. They ask a false hypothetical regarding a future action.

A better public opinion question would be: “Who do you want to be president” or “Who do you prefer to be president?” or “Who is your first choice to be president?”

By contrast, the question that the CPD relies on from these media organizations — if held today, who would you vote for — is a tactical question. As has become increasingly clear, there are many people who would like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein to be president. However, many who fear Trump or Clinton are currently planning on voting for Clinton or Trump.

Each of the dominant candidates is using fear of the other to prevent public opinion from manifesting itself.

Our voting system puts voters in a bind, making it difficult for them to vote their true preference.

But public opinion polling should be a relief from that. Such polling should find out what the public thinks and wants — especially if the electoral system doesn’t allow for those choices. But that’s not what’s happening. The “tracking” poll question that’s being used over and over and obsessed over by all these organizations is actually disguising public opinion. And then the CPD, acting on behalf of the two major parties, is using that to exclude third party candidates from the debates, further marginalizing any public thinking that questions the establishment parties.

This is more egregious since the CPD has basically asked for the “who do you want/prefer to be president” question to be used. When some suggested alternative criteria for inclusion in presidential debates, like if a majority wanted another candidate to be in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort. Then-CPD Director and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said: “The issue is who do you want to be president. It’s not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate.” Similarly, Paul Kirk, the then-co-chair of the CPD (now co-chairman emeritus) and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.”

So for the Commission on Presidential Debates to fulfill the very criteria it has set for itself, the “serious question” of “who would you prefer to be president” needs to be the polling question used as the basis for inclusion in any debates that group sponsors.

In the closing days of the 2000 election, I got a funder to put up the money for a poll which basically found that numbers for candidates Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader doubled if the question was who the voter preferred to be president regardless of their chances of winning, rather than the standard “If the election were held today, who would you vote for.”

If that proportion were to hold, it would mean the actual numbers for Johnson and Stein are around 18 and 10 percent support respectively. But why should we speculate? Why don’t “public opinion” pollsters actual ask the public what they want?

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Sam Husseini is founder of the website VotePact.org

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