"When the Commission on Presidential Debates this year finalized its rules for determining which candidates get invited to this fall’s headline debates, it suddenly made Libertarian dark-horse candidate Gary Johnson’s job a whole lot harder.

Johnson, a former Republican who has been picking up voters disaffected by Donald Trump, has had his eye on winning a debate slot all summer. Though he has conceded that “extraordinary things have to happen” for him to win, it’s the debates that matter for him: If he can get onstage, his strategists think, he has a chance to upset a race that has left a huge number of Americans unhappy with their choices."

From Politico Magazine's Did Gary Johnson Just Get Boxed Out of the Debates?

But why 15%? Shouldn't it be lower?

Personally, I would love to see a change in presidential debates where all pres. debates polling a sig. minority of support should be in.

  • 1
    Did you watch the Republican primary debates this past year? One argument is that a higher threshold limits the debate floor to candidates who have a realistic chance at winning, in order to not "dilute" the limited time available.
    – Geobits
    Oct 17, 2016 at 20:49
  • Couldn't you extend the time though?
    – user9760
    Oct 17, 2016 at 20:55
  • Maybe, but I know that I'm usually quite done after 90 minutes or so. I'm not sure how many people would stay tuned into a three hour (or whatever) debate, and I'm not sure any politicians would agree to it anyway.
    – Geobits
    Oct 17, 2016 at 21:02
  • As a new user here, I was baffled by this, so thank you for really getting the wisdom and sharing it for my question.
    – user9760
    Oct 17, 2016 at 21:03
  • 1
    The other issue is: have you seen Gary Johnson being interviewed? He's not exactly the kind of candidate that would be raising the intellectual bar in the debates.
    – user1530
    Oct 18, 2016 at 2:41

2 Answers 2


Since the Commission on Presidential Debates is a private organization, the ultimate answer to this is: Because that's how they want it to be.

15% is a rather arbitrary figure, and if someone was polling at 14.7% I would agree that it would be against the spirit of free and open elections to deny them a chance to air their views on such a large stage during a pivotal moment of an election. Still, since this is America and anyone can get it in their mind that they want to be President, there has to be something to use as a delimeter and publicly available polling data from reputable sources is just as good as anything else.

As far as why a private 501(C)(3) organization gets to make the determination that 15% is the threshold a candidate must meet in order to receive a debate invitation, I think the reason is because they actually spoke up and did the hard work of organizing the debate. It is their show that they put on for our benefit. I read a bit of history on the CPD's About Page, where they state this:

After the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, there were no such debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972. There were debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, but they were hastily arranged after negotiations between the candidates that left many uncertain whether there would be any debates at all. The 1984 experience, in particular, reinforced a mounting concern that, in any given election, voters could be deprived of the opportunity to observe a debate among the leading candidates for President.


In response to the Harvard and Georgetown studies, the then-chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, Paul G. Kirk, Jr., and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., respectively, jointly supported creation of the independent CPD. The CPD was incorporated in the District of Columbia on February 19, 1987, as a private, not-for-profit corporation to "organize, manage, produce, publicize and support debates for the candidates for President of the United States."

So why must we listen to the Commission and follow their rules, seemingly arbitrary or not? Because no one else was doing it, and they were able to create a consensus that it needed to be done and at the same time got the two major political parties to agree to let them out of a desire to better inform and educate the electorate without the uncertainty of having to rely on the candidates themselves to work out the details.

Imagine if Clinton and Trump had to agree on the format of even a single debate. I don't think they would, and we would not be able to enjoy the spectacle, or become better informed citizens, of course.


Only candidates with at least 15% have a real shot at winning the presidency. Those that are polling lower than this won't likely be elected.

Anyway, a candidate would require at the very least around 30% of the popular vote to get elected.

For the record, the lowest ever popular vote percentage is 30.92% by John Quincy Adams and that's in 1824.

In recent elections, the winning candidate usually garners around 40% - 50% of the popular vote.

Since the main purpose of debates is for the public to get a better idea at the candidate's policies, only those that have a chance of getting elected will be invited.

Also, the CPD website lists the reason why it's set at 15%.

"goal of the CPD’s debates is to afford the members of the public an opportunity to sharpen their views, in a focused debate format, of the leading candidates for President and Vice President of the United States."

"selection criteria make participation open to any candidate, ... , in whom the public has demonstrated significant interest and support"

"a level of 15 percent support of the national electorate is achievable by a significant third party or independent candidate who captures the public's interest"

Quoted from CPD official website, emphasise mine

Read more from CPD's official website.

  • In 1992, Ross Perot was present in all debates. He was leading in some polls during the summer, so easily satisfied the 15% requirement. He ended up with 18.9% of the votes.
    – Sjoerd
    Dec 19, 2019 at 22:00

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