Thursday, October 19, 2006

Forcing Your Way In The Door

Yesterday I received a phone call from a reporter at Western Washington University. He was working on a story about third party campaigns, and asked me a particularly poignant question, “What's the biggest hurdle standing in the way of third party candidates?”

My response, “Exclusion.”

It was an apropos question because at the time I was downtown with the Green Party Candidate for Senate, Aaron Dixon, and his supporters, protesting King 5 TV's exclusion of Mr. Dixon from the one and only televised Senatorial debate. Aaron Dixon was excluded from the debates because as King TV's President summarized:

“We invited all the Senate candidates to participate in the debate under the condition that they met any one of a number of criteria to establish their viability. These criteria were based on the guidelines established by the Debate Advisory Standards Project. It is unfortunate that Mr. Dixon did not meet any of those criteria. It is also unfortunate that he refused to leave the premises when asked to do so."

These are the same standards King 5 pointed to when they excluded my campaign for King County Executive from last year's televised debates. These standards basically consist of an eight point list of criteria that a candidate must meet in order to be included in debates. I'm not going to belabor the entire list of rules, as you can read them for yourself online, here:

The Debate Project Report

But I will highlight this particular section of Debate Project's report:

"It is fair and reasonable that inclusion criteria during the pre-election period may be more difficult to meet than during the out-period. If a nonmajor or third-party candidate who is given an opportunity to participate in public debates during the out-period does not earn significant public support going into the final 30 days of an election campaign, debate sponsoring organizations that wish to limit participation have an acceptable rationale to tighten the inclusion criteria.

1.Out-period test. The test for including a candidate during the out-period should be seriousness of purpose. All candidates who have a serious purpose should be included in debates. Candidates who do not have a serious purpose include "joke" candidates; candidates who do not campaign in a meaningful way; and candidates who admit that their candidacies have only symbolic or trivial intentions. It is important that nonmajor and third-party candidates who begin their candidacies with little public support or name recognition are nonetheless equitably provided reasonable opportunities to present their credentials and their positions on the issues during the early stages of an election campaign.

2. Pre-election period test. The test for including a candidate during this period should be twofold: seriousness of purpose plus demonstration of significant public support. All candidates who demonstrate seriousness of purpose and significant support going into the final 30 days of an election should be included in debates."

These rules then state that in the “out-period,” 30 days or more before the election, polls should be conducted to see if candidates are viable. If a candidate polls at 5% or more during the “out-period,” he or she is to be included in any debates among candidates for that office.

But most pollsters freely admit they don't typically poll on 3rd party candidates. So this rule is simply ignored and these news organizations conduct biased polls from the outset. A fact recently pointed out by a local Washington newspaper, The Herald:

“Polling shows Cantwell leading McGavick by 8 to 10 points. These polls usually exclude the three other candidates: Bruce Guthrie, a Libertarian, Aaron Dixon, a Green, and Robin Adair, an Independent. None are invited to today's event.”

The Herald Story

The typical poll in the out-period that is actually conducted asks if you are going to vote for the front-runner Republican or the front-runner Democrat. At best they include Democrat and Republican primary candidates. They rarely, if ever, poll on 3rd party candidates.

Most of the polls in the 2005 race for King County Executive, a race in which there were only three candidates, asked only about the Democratic or Republican candidate, and if 5% actually responded with “Gentry Lange” it must have been recorded as “other” or even less honestly as “undecided.” I only know this because at least five of my own supporters were polled and told me about their experiences. Two reported being presented the “Democrat, Republican, or other” options, and two others reported being given only the “Republican” or “Democrat” choice. Only one person who reported back to me said that my name was specifically offered as an option during the poll, 1 poll out of 5, and even that amount of direct inclusion in a poll is highly unusual for a 3rd party candidate.

So in a race in which there were only 3 candidates, the third candidate was excluded the vast majority of the time. Ralph Nader calls this the “No chance to have a chance” phenomenon.

The standards cited by King 5, say the same thing as Ralph Nader. All candidates for office must be included in events during the “out-period.” This includes community forums, radio interviews, and any and all debates. Otherwise the excluded candidate will not have been provided a fair playing field from which to compete with the other candidates in the race. So due to the media's continued use of polling that excludes third party candidates during the out-period, according to their own rules these debate sponsoring organizations do not have an any, “acceptable rationale to tighten the inclusion criteria” during the in-period.

Interestingly, in the 2005 race for King County Executive, there was an initial poll conducted during the out period that found I was polling at 5%. But this was an internal poll in one of the other campaigns, that was shown to me, but never provided to the media. I think it's safe to say that since I got almost 5% of the vote during the general election, that it was a fairly accurate poll, and therefore never saw the light of day. So even though most of the polls excluded me, by the rules King 5 purports to play by, they should have included me in any debate or discussion with my Democratic and Republican opponents during the initial out-period.

So King 5 was actually breaking two of their own rules:

1. They never conducted a poll during the out-period that included “Gentry Lange” as an option.
2. King 5 television never allowed me to participate in a single media event, debate or discussion during the out-period.

Nor did any other major news organization bother to include my campaign, that is until I learned how to force my way in the door. A tactic effectively employed by Aaron Dixon yesterday at the front door of King 5 studios. And until media outlets, and all the other debate sponsoring organizations start playing by their own rules, it is one of the few tactics that forces the issue of exclusion onto the front page and into the lead story on television.

It wasn't until the in-period that I was even interviewed by Robert Mak, the political news reporter for King 5 News, for a 3 minute segment in which the edited segment badly summarized my political views for half of the interview. And the best explanation I have for this minor coverage they gave the campaign is that I was polling at 7 % in the final weeks of October and threatening to upset the race. In short, I became newsworthy. But from June to October, a period in which numerous polls were conducted featuring my opponents, the only other poll to include me that I ever saw would come out on October 17th, when the race was nearly over.

Survey USA Poll

By excluding me in the out-period against the rules they feign to play by, King 5 as well as several other news outlets, affectively colluded to limit my chances to gain traction in the out-period by excluding me from television coverage. After all, in politics nothing is as important as free time on television.

In the end, after battling tooth and nail for every column inch in the media, the same media coverage that is handed on a silver platter to the “chosen two” major party candidates, I still ended up getting over 24,000 votes in the general election. A number greater than most statewide 3rd party candidates ever receive, and almost the same percentage of votes that Ralph Nader got in 2000, the year he received the most votes he ever received in King County. So by their own rules it was obvious that my campaign was “serious.”

It should be equally obvious that Aaron Dixon is a candidate with serious intent, and does not fall into the Mike “The Mover” category. But with the exclusion of Aaron Dixon from the debates, the question that is remaining is this, “Why is any legally qualified candidate allowed to be excluded from the debate?” And why is it that this Debate Advisory Standards Project gets to choose the criteria of inclusion or exclusion in these debates?

The Debate Advisory Standards Project is funded by the PEW Charitable Trusts. I don't know much about the PEW Charitable Trusts, but I do know this, they were never elected to decide who is or is not a viable candidate. And most polls show an overwhelming number of Americans would prefer more candidates included in political debates, not less.

Furthermore, if King 5 is going to act as if they are following the rules outlined by the PEW Charitable Trusts, then they should at least follow these rules. Any polls conducted during the out-period should include all candidates in the race, and serious effort should be extended to make the system as fair as possible. In fact, as I read and re-read the PEW's rules on debate exclusion, it occurs to me that if King 5 and the other major media organizations actually followed the rules they purport to play by, the debates would be far more inclusive then they are today. Instead, King 5 simply hides behind the rules they like when challenged, while ignoring the rules and recommendations they dislike.

In the end, the fact that Bruce Guthrie was smart enough and wealthy enough to play by these rules, though heavily weighted against him, and force his way into the debates, was little more than a fluke. Guthrie, in a stroke of pure political genius, bought his way into the televised debate, and in the end doesn't even have to spend the money.

It will be interesting to see the final numbers from this race come November, because prior to the TV debates Guthrie was polling at just barely 1%. Televised debates have launched third party candidates to victory before, most notably Jesse Ventura who was polling under 10% until his televised debate appearance. Mr. Ventura then went on to win the Governor's race in Minnesota.

But I'm not predicting Guthrie will win. No, his inclusion in the debates was a fluke, because up until air time, it wasn't even certain that Bruce Guthrie would be allowed to debate, regardless of the rules he had figured out to play by. And he obviously didn't hit a home run... but he did get his point across, and it's likely he'll pick up a few percentage points along the way. Thanks to a spot at the podium. In fact, if he gains 5% the Libertarians will win big on this gamble, because they will become an official “major” party in Washington State once again, and many of the barriers to inclusion will be eliminated with the achievement of major party status.

While we may not be able to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, killed by President Reagan, the next coarse of action should certainly be to sue King 5 for unregulated campaign contributions. Because free air time is the equivalent of giving away millions in paid advertising to these campaigns. The final vote totals that Bruce Guthrie receives will offer a glimpse of the increase in votes a television appearance can give to 3rd party candidates. But until networks like King 5 are confronted, harassed and sued repeatedly for what should be prosecuted as illegal campaign contributions, they will continue to silence dissent and exclude the voices that they alone decide should not be heard on the public airwaves. Regardless of the rules they choose for themselves, this is not Democracy, hell it's not even a fair way to run debates in a Republic.

What it is, is unacceptable. So regardless of your political persuasion I urge you to contact King 5 news, the Seattle Times, Mike McGavick's Campaign, and Maria Cantwell's office, to register your disgust with this type of blatant electioneering. And if you are a lawyer, feel free to give me a call.

Gentry Lange
Former Green Party Candidate for King County Executive

No comments: