Libertarian Presidential Candidate Jo Jorgensen will be the second straight Libertarian Presidential Candidate to appear on all 50 state ballots. She will not be on the Presidential debate stage tonight. Her campaign and her supporters have made hay of the fact she’s not being allowed to appear. They’ve created the hashtag #letherspeak, with her campaign putting out a blistering video to promote the hashtag. She insists that the decision of the Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t serve the interests of American people but those of the two major parties.  

In principle, I agree with the Libertarian Party and the Jorgensen campaign. In my ideal world, Presidential debates would include all candidates on enough ballots to win the electoral college should appear on the debate stage and voters sort out who is and is not a serious candidate.  At the very least, it seems the commission could offer a third-party debate with Howie Hawkins of the Green Party (the only other candidate on enough ballots to get to 270 electoral votes) right before the main event similar to the undercard GOP debates in 2016 to give the American people the full range of options to appear on the ballot. However, we don’t live in my ideal world and we never have.  

The Commission on Presidential Debates has set essentially the same criteria for participation for a quarter of a century. A candidate needs to be on enough ballots to win 270 electoral votes, and they have to have an average of fifteen percent in polls leading up to the debate. The Libertarian Party knew those rules for the past four years. They complain about “the duopoly” and the need to get their candidate on the stage, but what have they done to effectively reach a core of voters and build a strong enough party to achieve the numbers the commission requires? 

Nothing much at all. The Libertarians’ main action, ironically, was to appeal to the government to solve their presidential debate problem. They filed a failed lawsuit demanding the polling threshold be dropped as a requirement.  There seems to have been little thought to potential unintended consequences such as states making ballot access laws more arduous, if ballot access alone becomes a qualifier for Presidential debates. Beyond that, the Libertarian Party’s main problem persists. It’s too hung up on their own petty rules and ideological division to be able to grow.

Jacob Hornberger, runner up to Jorgensen, who actually led the first ballot at the party’s convention, went so far as to say, “votes don’t matter,” and showed no interest in reaching anyone outside the party. When that sort of attitude plays such a large role in the party, it’s not going to grow. 

The Libertarian Party has done nothing in four years to achieve the requirement for debate participation that they’ve known about since the Macarena was the latest dance craze. And now Jorgensen’s campaign’s biggest tactic is to do what every Libertarian candidate does every four years: complain about not being in the debates. The candidate complains each time after four years of the Libertarians failing to do anything different than they have before. That’s not a history that should elicit sympathy. 

There is a legitimate case against having the Libertarians in the debate, whether you agree with or not. Either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be President of the United States on January 20, 2021. One of them will be in charge of the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons and have to deal with a global pandemic and an economy in crisis. The Presidential debates give voters the chance to see these two candidates face off against each other. If you throw in four candidates (with Jorgensen and Hawkins), you’re either going to either have to cut the number of debate topics in half or you’re going to have to have to double the length of time for the debate, making it harder for the American people to follow. Should this really be done in service of two candidates who won’t get five percent of the vote combined?

Many in the Libertarian Party insist the only reason for the Commission’s refusal is stopping their party’s success. Appearance on the Presidential debate stage is viewed as making it, as the grand opportunity for the Party. The problem is that while the Libertarian Party hasn’t had a candidate on the Presidential debate stage, they’ve had numerous candidates in debates for House, Senate, and Governor across America. The winning percentage of Libertarian nominees for House, Senate, and Governor over the last 48 years is 0%. So much for the magic of appearing in the debates. 

Under the rules laid out by the Commission on Presidential Debates, appearing in a debate is not an opportunity to build a healthy, competitive, third-party movement, it’s a reward for having done so. If a movement is ever to succeed, it has to acknowledge how the world is and figure out how to make it better. The Libertarian Party has refused to do that. 

In my opinion, the Commission’s standards for participation are too high and we need to see a challenge to the major parties. But that challenge will come from a Party that wants to do the work required to build a coalition and win elections and with leadership that understands and is willing to deal with the complexity of that process. The Libertarian Party is like a football coach with only one play in their fall campaign playbook, and they keep running it election after election and losing. No one’s doing anyone any favors by pretending that losing play ought to succeed. 

Jo Jorgensen shouldn’t be on the debate stage because it’s a privilege, and her party hasn’t earned it. If they continue to view it as a right and to demand it without working for it, they will continue to get to futilely complain about being denied every four years. If they ever want a nominee actually to make it on the stage, the Libertarians had better face reality and do the work necessary to make that happen. 

23 comments
  1. That is a thoughtful take. My experience – admittedly from a very long time ago – is that few if any Libertarians actually want to hold elected office. The consistent whining about the presidential debate may be more performance art than anything else.

    I have long believed that the party is more effective as a think tank than as a platform to office. I suspect that many of their candidates believe the same thing!

  2. “Do the work necessary.” The major parties continue to deprive the LP of ballot access locally and sap the energies of every local race. Not being a viable route to power, we lose most entrepreneurial candidates out of the gate. Larry Sharpe had to spend $500k just to get us to ballot access and now that access is highly precarious with new, increased statewide thresholds. Do not extol the virtues of hard work to Sisyphus.

    1. The problem is that the LP doesn’t have the people or the money to actually be a competitive party and many seem to lack will or interest to make that happen. After nearly 5 decades in existence, they need to either find a way to become competitive or acknowledge that they’re a thinktank/philosophy club trying to operate as a political party.

      1. Media is everything. The media is doing everything it can to lock out the LP like they did Republican Ron Paul in ‘08 and ‘12 despite getting more donations from the military and the youth then obama and mitt put together.

        The media and the RNC and DNC do NOT want a 3rd party on stage. To claim it’s from lack of work and not a concerted effort to make sure 3rd parties don’t get the free leg work media does for the other two parties then you are high as a kite sir.

  3. Made hay, not hey. Otherwise, a pretty thoughtful article, I’m an LP member, and though I agree that the Rs and Ds have unfairly arranged the game so that others can’t play, we Ls have to do a better job competing in that biased environment.

    1. While I appreciate the point, it’s a bit of a moot argument. No one believes she’d get to 15 percent if she’d be included in the polls. That’s part of why she wasn’t listed. There were a couple national polls released that listed her. She got 4% in 1 and 1% in the other. I doubt 15 percent of the public knows who she is.

      1. If she was in the polls she would get votes from people who simply don’t want Biden or Trump. 75% of her support base is people outside of the Libertarian party who specifically found her for this reason. Also, it would give people the opportunity to research her and the libertarian platform and decide for themselves if she deserves their vote.

  4. No candidate has met the 15% criteria since the CPD was founded. It was 5%, but then Perot got in, so they raised it past what he polled before the debates.

  5. Correction: they “did the work“ to get on the ballot in all 50 states. That should be the only requirement. Any other “rules” are BS made up by a corrupt system in an effort to maintain the status quo.

    1. This is a recurring theme in a lot of comments. LP supporters confuse “the way we think things should be” and “the way things are.” If you or I are hosting the debates, we gets to set the standards. Same for the Commission on Presidential Debates. When you know what the standards are, it’s your job as a political party to figure out how to meet them.

      1. I have heard the argument that the LP “knew the rules before they played the game”. I don’t think this is a game. The Republicans and Democrats have spent over a century turning our elections and our country into a circus. Electing our leaders was not meant to be a form of entertainment, with a glorious winner followed by millions of adoring fans who goes home with a shiny trophy. I, for one, do not think the LP should be content with “the way things are” when “the way things are” is wrong
        You are correct that the LP is focused on “the way things should be”. I see that as a pro, not a con.
        I feel like this article overcomplicates something that is rather simple: If a candidate is on the ballot in all 50 states, the PEOPLE deserve to hear from that candidate, just as much as the candidate deserves to be heard. We will see three names on our ballot in November. Shouldn’t we go into the voting booth with all the information?

  6. Soo, how many polls were the libertarians included in?
    None that were picked by the commission..
    You can’t get any numbers if your not included in the poll questions…

  7. I look forward to voting for Dr. Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian Party candidate for President. She is much better on the vital issues than either Trump or Biden.

  8. “If you throw in four candidates (with Jorgensen and Hawkins), you’re either going to either have to cut the number of debate topics in half or you’re going to have to have to double the length of time for the debate, making it harder for the American people to follow.”

    So the live discussion regarding determining the next person to become the most powerful person in the world only deserves 3 two-hour debates? If the American people can’t “follow” “debate topics” when presented by the candidates, but can follow them when presented through relentless commercials and mainstream media attention, someone is living in an Orwellian world,

    If a candidate’s team does the groundwork to appear on every ballot in the US, the public deserves to know about them – unfiltered and unadulterated.

  9. Here’s the deal! In 1992 the commission rule was 5% until Ross Perot made the stage and afterward they raised the bar to 15%. In 1992 pollsters included other than duopoly party candidates names in surveys, now they just ask if your voting for a third party excluding names. How is this fair when the “Presidential debate commission” mission statement claims to support educating voter’s on choices. Obviously; they can only count to two. What idiot coined the phrase third party anyway? Since there are actually 5 parties now, which is the third party? It is also no surprise that the court challenge filed by the Libertarian and Green parties was thrown out by a partisan Judge! Bottom line is, how can one get 15% polling if their names are not included in surveys?

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