For reasons which are at best illogical and at worst suspect, one of the best qualified candidates in the Republican field has not been invited to participate in next week’s Republican debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. Although almost every other candidate was invited, no invitation was sent to former Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico. CNN is the primary sponsor of the debate and they claim that Johnson did not meet their criteria, particularly because he did not score 2% or more in the national polls they used for a reference, particularly their own polls.
Governor Johnson lays out many of the reasons why it makes no sense to exclude him from the debate in an article on his website, and the arguments based on his qualifications and his relevance are hard to ignore. He’s a two term governor who has been in the race as a declared candidate since the very beginning, has outstanding credentials as a fiscal conservative and has raised substantial amounts of money. He was also included in the previous debate in South Carolina and is expected to be included in the upcoming debate in Florida. Johnson is also popular in New Hampshire where his mainstream libertarian message resonates with local activist groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus.
It’s also notable that in previous debates CNN has made exceptions for candidates who were clearly serious and legitimate but did not meet all of their polling criteria, notably Mike Gravel in a similar debate in 2007. And they aren’t exactly being strict about some of their criteria this time either, as they sent invitations to candidates who have not declared their candidacy and at least one who seems very unlikely to ever enter the race.
The main stumbling block is the question of whether Johnson has received 2% or more in relevant polls in May. It appears that CNN’s argument for not including him is that he scored under 2% in their main presidential poll in the end of May. The problem with this argument is that the poll consists of four different versions with different lists of candidates, and while Johnson scores below two percent in two versions and 2% or more in the other two versions, the key distinction is that Johnson scores below the cutoff only in those polls which include candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin who have not declared and are not likely to declare as actual candidates. So in the only matchups CNN did with candidates who are actually running and attending the debate Johnson met their criteria. How can it be fair to exclude him on the basis of poll results which do not represent the actual composition of the campaign field or of the debate itself?
In addition, if you actually do the poll research, you can easily find (as shown in the accompanying video) that Johnson actually does meet the stated criteria, because in addition to scoring 2% in a number of polls he also scored 3% in the May Gallup poll, one of the polls specifically indicated as qualified for consideration by CNN. Just following their stated criteria it’s impossible for Johnson not to qualify for inclusion in the debate. That being the case, there’s either something wrong with CNN’s math skills or something fishy going on.
With the first primary still half-a-year away, setting any cutoff for qualification for a debate is fairly arbitrary. At this point in previous campaigns future nominees like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were polling at 2% or less and they went on to win nomination and the general election. Like Johnson these candidates were successful governors with extensive executive experience who used the campaign period to build a national reputation and go on to victory. They were able to do that because they were included in debates based on their qualifications rather than on polls conducted before the public has really become aware of what the candidates stand for.
It’s possible that CNN just didn’t think these criteria through, and there’s still hope that they will reconsider and allow Johnson to participate. There’s a very active write-in and call-in campaign underway to persuade them that they’ve made a mistake and should let viewers hear from Johnson.
Yet it’s also possible that CNN may have other reasons for not wanting Johnson included. If you have been watching their coverage of the election, it’s very clear that they want to present a particular picture of the Republican party, as a party of social and religious conservatives who are out of step with the increasingly open-minded views of the voting public. Governor Gary Johnson clearly does not fit that manufactured narrative.
With his support for ending the War on Drugs and our wars in the Middle East, as well as socially libertarian positions on gay rights and other issues, Johnson represents a Republican constituency they would rather pretend does not exist – truly libertarian Republicans in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and Jack Kemp who remain a significant element in the party. This group is not the same as the more paleoconservative core group of Ron Paul supporters, although they agree on many issues. With his more socially conservative views, Ron Paul fits CNN’s vision of the GOP better than Gary Johnson does, plus there’s no way to write him off when he’s polling in double digits.
The truth is that the libertarian wing of the Republican party makes up at least 20% of the party and it is split close to 50-50 (maybe 55-45) between Paul supporters and more moderate libertarians who have been undercover since the Reagan era or who are young and just getting involved in politics. For years moderate libertarians have kept their heads low and worked within the party while they secretly voted for Ron Paul. Johnson’s combination of political pragmatism and libertarian positions on key issues speaks to them and is making them believe that a different kind of Republican Party is possible and they are emerging as a political force.
If CNN is excluding Johnson because they don’t like the idea of a debate where two different kinds of libertarianism are represented, clearly demonstrating that the GOP is not just a party of religious conservatives and war hawks, then they are doing voters and certainly all Republicans a great disservice.
For information on how to contact CNN and other involved groups to encourage them to include Gov. Johnson in the debate see the RLC website.