My Turn: Running for president: Independents need not apply

Last modified: 4/11/2015 11:37:00 PM
Politicians from both major parties have begun announcing their candidacy for the highest office in our country already this spring. And nowhere will this pageantry be more fully on display than in the Granite State. As our nation’s first primary state, New Hampshire has a front-row seat in our presidential selection process.

While most of the punditry and reporting will be focused on candidates’ qualifications, policy positions and the primary horse race about to ensue, this process should really raise a different question for us. Why haven’t strong independent candidates emerged?

The answer is in the rules governing access to the general election debates. In 2012, nearly 70 million Americans tuned in to watch the first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, well over half of the number of the total number of voters in the 2012 election.

The presidential debates are a singular and critical opportunity to address the vast majority of the American electorate at once. Being cut out means you can’t possibly compete. The current rules for debates are governed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a group that – rather than being nonpartisan – was actually created by the two political parties themselves. It requires that a candidate have more than 15 percent support in at least five national polls in mid-September. While this may appear to be fair on the surface, it is actually an impossibly high barrier to entry that no candidate from outside the duopoly can reasonably achieve. Even Ross Perot didn’t meet it – he was only invited to the 1992 debates at the request of both the Bush and Clinton campaigns.

In order to achieve 15 percent support in September, research shows that a candidate who does not participate in the major party primaries would need to raise and spend more than $250 million, a sum that no independent candidate has ever come close to bringing in. As a result, the rule thoroughly locks out anyone but the nominees of the two major parties.

This duopoly, facilitated by the CPD, is distorting the marketplace of ideas in our political system, and perpetuating status quo by protecting the major parties from real, unfettered competition. Americans don’t like the product we’re getting, but thanks to rules like this, we’re stuck with it. That’s why I’ve joined 47 other political, military, business and academic leaders to call on the CPD to change this rule and create a free and fair process that would give Americans the debate stage that they so clearly want.

These debate rules are just one of the many ways our system is rigged against success for independents and other parties, but they’re an important one. Competition drives innovation and serves consumers. The lack of it in our politics has led to stagnation, and the lack of it on the national stage of our debates has too often limited us to picking the lesser of two evils. It’s time for us to #changetherule, fix this broken system and begin to improve our democracy by making it truly competitive again.

With over 43 percent of Americans (and, coincidentally, 43 percent of New Hampshire residents) now identified as politically independent, independents make up the largest cohort of voters in our country. Yet, it’s a group that is almost entirely unrepresented in Washington.

I ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent in my home state of Kansas against an incumbent Republican this past fall. While we mounted a strong campaign and went into Election Day tied in the polls, we ultimately fell short. Along the way, we confronted a host of obstacles built into the system, designed to make it more difficult for independent candidates to compete and succeed.

My career has been in business, and so markets and competition are what I know. In the free market economy, we believe in the power of competition to bring the best the value to consumers. As a result, innovative upstarts often supplant stodgy companies that are set in their ways. This principle of economic freedom and valuing competition has made the lives of Americans better, improved our economy, and rewarded innovators.

When it comes to our politics, however, we’ve forgotten that lesson. It’s no surprise that Washington’s approval ratings are so low. As the two parties work to entrench themselves, they become less responsive to the needs of voters. The fact is that the system through which we select our political leaders is not defined by free and fair competition, but by a firmly entrenched duopoly. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our presidential election process.

(Greg Orman is a Kansas businessman and entrepreneur. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 as an independent and is a supporter of Change the Rule.)

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