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The Debate System Is Biased and Broken

The Debate System Is Biased and Broken


Who gets to speak at debates is decided by network whim, says a gay former presidential candidate who was disinvited to a Fox News debate.

CNN recently announced that Carly Fiorina will be allowed to participate in tonight's debate, bringing the total to a whopping 11 Republican candidates. Riding the ratings wave of last month's Fox News debate, CNN capitulated to Fiorina's charges of impropriety and added the lone female candidate to its all-important A-team debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

I ran for president four years ago and dealt with the difficult debate access problem. By running for president, I had the distinction of being the first openly gay candidate to do so from either major political party. I wasn't exactly sure if that would be a plus or a minus for access to the prime-time debate stage.

From day one of my 2.5 year full-time journey, my main objective was to get into one presidential debate. If that would happen, I argued, and if I did well, my name recognition would go up and I would be invited to future debates. Then anything was possible.

It's not a new strategy, but one that made particular sense for a first-time candidate like me. Everything our campaign did was geared toward getting into one of the early debates.

I learned very quickly four years ago that it was the broadcasters of each of the then 20 GOP debates that picked the participants, not the Republican National Committee.

Then as now, the determinant factor established by the Federal Election Commission is supposed to be "pre-established objective criteria." In other words, all candidates must be treated equally. The networks cannot arbitrarily pick and choose who's in and who's not, but as I witnessed, that FEC regulation is pretty elastic.

During the 2012 election cycle nearly all 20 GOP debates had the same criteria, poll standings. For the early debates it was at least 1 percent in five national polls. In later debates the number went up.

I actually qualified to be in the second Fox News presidential debate when I met that 1 percent threshold. So I wrote Fox News heads Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Michael Clemente and attached the results of the five polls showing that I had qualified. I asked for the details of the August 2, 2011, debate in Ames, Iowa. and where I should report. A week later I received a letter back from Fox News saying it did not recognize all five polls and I would not be able to participate in the debate.

So I filed a sworn complaint with the Federal Election Commission and personally delivered a copy of my 56 page complaint to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. office. I had not been treated fairly, and I knew if I missed another early debate, I would not make it into any future ones. That is exactly what happened. Any chance I had of gaining ground was scuttled by Fox News.

Cut to this year and the original 19 Republican candidates for president. Fox News and CNN are back in the driver's seat for the first two debates. Both organizers wanted to limit the A-team debates to just 10 participants, and they were able to manipulate the criteria to get the candidates they wanted.

In the first debate this year on August 6, 18 of the then 2016 presidential candidates wanted to be in the prime-time debate along with leader Donald Trump. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the beneficiary of Fox News' rule-bending ways this year. He had just announced his candidacy for president, and the debate was in his state. Fox News thought it would look bad if it left out the host state's governor, so while seven GOP candidates were relegated to the earlier, not-ready-for-prime-time debate and probable presidential candidate purgatory, Kasich was allowed in. The other seven's chances to gain notoriety were severely hampered in the one-hour version broadcast in the middle of the afternoon.

A similar rules change happened four years ago at the Bloomberg News sponsored debate on October 11, 2011, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Bloomberg let in candidate Rick Perry, the then-governor of Texas, and threw out all its announced pre-established objective criteria to do so.

That cemented the eight "top-tier" Republican candidates and left out the four "second-tier" ones. The four were former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Louisiana Congressman and Gov. Buddy Roemer, Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, and me. None of us ever had a chance to gain ground after that, leaving Mitt Romney to duke it out with his debate opponents until six months later when he finally buried Rick Santorum, the last candidate standing, and went on the become the Republican nominee.

The presidential debate process has gone through many changes over the years, and the two major political parties have had to surrender much of their power to the broadcast networks. There is an excellent research paper that I was interviewed for by author Mark McKinnon for the Harvard Kennedy School. In it, one of the country's foremost political consultants argues that the process is broken and offers many ways to reform it. Until that is done, the American voters are at the mercy of the debate broadcasters, which have too much power in determining who our next president will be.


FRED KARGER is an American political consultant, gay rights activist, watchdog, political pundit, writer, public speaker, author, former actor, and 2012 candidate for the Republican nomination for President. Karger has worked on 10 presidential campaigns and served as a senior consultant during the campaigns of President's Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford. Follow him on Twitter @fredkarger.

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