By Sasha Volokh
Ilya and I have covered presidential candidate Gary Johnson a few times on this blog: see, e.g., here, here, and here (and see here for a post by Todd). I’ve gotten slightly involved with his campaign in the form of gathering some “Academics for Johnson” signatures.
Johnson has now been excluded from the New Hampshire debate; here’s the text of the letter to CNN from Johnson advisor Ron Nielson:
Having heard nothing to the contrary from you, the debate sponsors, we assume the decision not to invite Governor Johnson was based upon your “objective” polling criteria. Certainly, you have to apply criteria. We get that. However, the idea that inclusion – or exclusion – from a critical debate in a critical state will be based entirely upon polling arithmetic, seven months before a single vote is cast, is not only absurd, but counter-intuitive to the very purpose of a debate.
At this point in the process, a candidate’s ranking in the polls is almost entirely a factor of name identification, news coverage by outlets such as yours, money, and/or previous exposure on the national level – including that gained from previous unsuccessful campaigns. In short, relying solely on polling numbers at this stage simply grants an enormous advantage to “establishment” candidates – and excludes a successful two-term governor whose express purpose in running is to give Americans an alternative to business as usual, and who actually has a track record to back it up.
Given that poll rankings at this point are largely the result of decisions by the elite media, such as CNN, about who and what to cover – and to whom to give precious air time, it is more than a little ironic when those same media use those poll numbers to deem certain candidates deserving and others not. That irony is not lost on Republican primary voters who most assuredly do not want media elites pre-selecting their candidates for them.
Consider: In early 1991, then-Governor Bill Clinton was in 11th place in presidential primary polling with 2%. By November of 1991, he was only at 6%, a fact which led one commentator to later observe: “If the front runners in the 1992 Democratic primary had been successful in excluding all the “non-serious” candidates, Bill and Hillary Clinton would have never made it to the national stage.” The “frontrunners” in 1991, by the way, were Mario Cuomo and Jerry Brown.
And there is this excerpt from a memorandum sent to supporters by the Mitt Romney campaign in 2007: “Carter, Dukakis, and Clinton were all governors of small states who began their campaigns with low national exposure and went on to win their party’s nomination. At this point in 1975, Carter was polling at 1%; in 1987, Dukakis was polling at 1%; in 1991, Clinton was at 2%.”
In short, applying your criteria, the ultimate nominees in several modern elections would likely not have been invited to a CNN debate. And in each case, they were Governors of relatively small states who simply had not enjoyed the advantage of the national media’s attention – a rather precise description of Governor Johnson. The polls were not predictive then, and they are not now.
The fundamental unfairness of relying solely on polling criteria aside, there are obvious problems with the polling criteria themselves. Even the most extensive and professional political polls carry margins of error from 3–5%. When reporting polls in which candidates are separated by margins within that range, the news media invariably points out that those candidates are essentially tied or the race is “too close to call”. While we have not seen your precise calculations, based on the polls we have seen, we have to assume that the “margin” between Governor Johnson and some of those who were invited to the debate were equally “too close to call”. Yet you made a call – and decided to exclude Governor Johnson.
Adding to the mystery of your arithmetic is the simple fact that Governor Johnson was not even included in much of CNN’s own polling during the month of April – one of the time periods you used to determine eligibility. It is hardly surprising that a candidate would not fare well in a poll in which he was not included.
Debates play an important role in the American political process. They uniquely provide an opportunity for voters to hear, see, contrast and compare candidates – on a level playing field uncluttered by funding, name I.D., past notoriety and public relations machines. Rather, they are about credentials, ideas, philosophies and policies.
By those measures, a two-term Republican governor from a Democrat state — who turned a deficit into a surplus, vetoed 750 bills, and successfully governed from a philosophy many, many Republicans are today seeking – deserves a chance to participate in the June 13 debate. Early and largely irrelevant polling arithmetic certainly should not trump the obvious: Gary Johnson has a record, a resume and the proven accomplishments to merit inclusion among any serious gathering of Republican candidates for president.
We respectfully ask that the decision to exclude Governor Johnson be revisited, and that the American people be given an opportunity to hear a voice on June 13 that otherwise will not be heard.
For more on the Johnson exclusion, see Conor Friedersdorf’s article from The Atlantic.