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PD Editorial: Allow third-party candidates in debate

Forget “Game of Thrones.” The most anticipated series of the coming season will be live and unscripted - and it has real consequences.

But despite the fact that the presidential debates have been set since September, there is still no guarantee as to how or when they will be held. The primary reason? GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has yet to sign off on them.

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three 90-minute debates so far. The first is scheduled for Sept. 26 in Hempstead, New York. The second is set for Oct. 9 in St. Louis, and the third ten days later in Las Vegas. The commission has also scheduled one debate for vice presidential candidates to be held in Farmville, Virginia on Oct. 4.

The commission, headed by former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., and Michael McCurry, press secretary to former Democratic President Bill Clinton, announced this schedule 11 months ago.

Democratic Park nominee Hillary Clinton has given her approval, but Trump now says the schedule, as it stands, is “unacceptable” because the showdowns overlap with three NFL games.

We have our doubts about whether voters really will be more interested in watching the Atlanta Falcons play the New Orleans Saints than see Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in the first debate. Moreover, we don’t like the idea of allowing national elections to take a back seat to the NFL, which now controls American TVs three nights a week and all day on Sunday. But this is not something worth quibbling over. The commission should come up with a set of dates that are more to the liking of both Trump and Clinton. Given Trump’s past clashes with broadcast news anchors Megyn Kelly and Jorge Ramos and his refusal to participate in a GOP candidates’ debate on Fox News Channel in January, it may be more of a challenge coming to terms on a moderator and format anyway.

But while we are at it, let’s make one more change: Let’s allow the leading third-party candidates to participate in at least one of these debates.

It’s true that recent polls show Clinton with a widening lead over Trump, largely due to his recent gaffes including ridiculing the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq. But the polls also continue to show deep dissatisfaction with both candidates.

Only 40 percent of voters view Clinton favorably while just 33 percent view Trump that way. Both are historically low for presidential nominees.

Voter dissatisfaction also shows in growing support for third-party candidates including Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, who is polling somewhere between 9 and 12 percent, and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, who is in the 5 percent range. Both score well below the imposing 15 percent threshold required to be included in the presidential debates. The only third-party candidate allowed to participate in modern debates was Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992. Even then, he was only allowed in with the support of the major-party candidates, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. At the time, Perot was polling at around 7 percent. (He finished the election with 19 percent of the vote.)

Given the broad dissatisfaction with our nation’s major parties, the public deserves at least one chance to hear from more than the two candidates they have produced. Trump and Clinton claim they support a big tent. But if they’re really interested in serving the public this fall, they shouldn’t be afraid of supporting a big stage for the debates as well.

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