How a Question’s Phrasing Hobbles Third Parties

By asking Americans who they expect to vote for rather than who they want to be President, pollsters skew the numbers in favor of major-party candidates and help exclude third-party challengers from crucial debates, notes Sam Husseini.

By Sam Husseini

This week, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced what polls it will utilize in excluding candidates from its debates. The CPD says candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein must get 15 percent in polls conducted by “five national public opinion polling organizations” — ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation, Fox News, and NBC/Wall Street Journal.

Not only — as several have correctly argued — is the 15 percent threshold arbitrary and exclusionary, but these polls don’t actually ask voter preferences at all. They all ask “If the presidential election were being held today for whom would you vote?” or some minor variation of that. Who you want or prefer and what you would do in the voting booth may be very different things. These “public opinion polls” don’t actually measure opinion — they are non-opinion polls. They ask a false hypothetical regarding a future action.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

A better public opinion question would be: “Who do you want to be president” or “Who do you prefer to be president?” or “Who is your first choice to be president?”

By contrast, the question that the CPD relies on from these media organizations — if held today, who would you vote for — is a tactical question. As has become increasingly clear, there are many people who would like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein to be president. However, many who fear Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are currently planning to vote for Clinton or Trump (based on who they judge to be the “lesser evil”).

Each of the dominant candidates is using fear of the other to prevent public opinion from manifesting itself for possible third-party candidates. Our voting system puts voters in a bind, making it difficult for them to vote their true preference.  But public opinion polling should be a relief from that. Such polling should find out what the public thinks and wants — especially if the electoral system doesn’t allow for those choices. But that’s not what’s happening. The “tracking” poll question that’s being used over and over and obsessed over by all these organizations is actually disguising public opinion.

And then the CPD, acting on behalf of the two major parties, is using that to exclude third-party candidates from the debates, further marginalizing any public thinking that questions the establishment parties.

When some proponents of a more open process suggested alternative criteria for deciding who to include in presidential debates, such as determining if a majority of respondents wanted a third-party candidate in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort. Then-CPD Director and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said: “The issue is who do you want to be president. It’s not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate.”

Similarly, Paul Kirk, the then-co-chair of the CPD (now co-chairman emeritus) and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.”

But those comments from CPD officials mean that even the CPD has basically asked for the “who do you want/prefer to be president” question to be used, rather than the “if the election were held today, who would you vote for” formulation.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

So for the Commission on Presidential Debates to fulfill the very criteria it has set for itself, the “serious question” of “who would you prefer to be president” should be the polling question used as the basis for inclusion in any debates that group sponsors.

In the closing days of the 2000 election, I got a funder to put up the money for a poll which basically found that numbers for candidates Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader doubled if the question was who the voter preferred to be president regardless of their chances of winning, rather than the standard “If the election were held today, who would you vote for.”

If that proportion were to hold, it would mean the actual numbers for Johnson and Stein are around 18 and 10 percent support respectively. But why should we speculate? Why don’t “public opinion” pollsters actual ask the public what they want?

Sam Husseini is founder of, which encourages disenchanted Democrats and Republicans to pair up and vote for the third party candidates they most want. [This story was originally published at]




25 comments for “How a Question’s Phrasing Hobbles Third Parties

  1. August 19, 2016 at 18:17

    There is a fundamental problem with our elections. The problem is that the voting system we use does not ask for enough information from voters and it does not make good decisions when there are more than just two candidates for an office. Voters are asked only who their first choice is but voters often have a second choice; some voters have as their most important priority that one or more of the candidate not be elected.

    So voters struggle with the system we have. It’s an archaic system but it’s been in use since the stone age if not longer. It’s a long practiced habit and we use it despite its widely recognized faults. It’s a system that encourages very big parties and that in turn makes it very difficult for more than two parties to persist for long. There are better systems for voting and switching to a better system is one of the easiest changes we might try to make to our political system.

  2. Donald J Clinton
    August 19, 2016 at 06:39

    Gary Johnson will be on the ballot in all 50 states. This is no trivial accomplishment in our modern “democracy”, and he should be included in the debates on this basis alone.

  3. Bart Gruzalski
    August 18, 2016 at 17:42

    I wrote 12 articles for Jill Stein during the last election cycle. I volunteered to coordinate whatever was published supporting Jill and/or the Greens wherever in the country and then show what was published on the Green site. I felt that by showing Greens what’s been published, others would write letters and push on getting more attention for Jill.

    Yes, there’s a HUGE BUT. After Jill lost by much more than any of us expected, I suggested that we have an online discussion of what people thought we did well and what they thought that we didn’t do well. The idea was deep-sixed for no reason at all.

    I became suspicious. What the Greens should have done was to bring in some celebrities early on and used their name recognition to bring in more folk. Also, there was a time when Gary Johnson could have been Jill’s running mate. Instead they ran this very nice lady who was an activist but was definitely not someone who had the stuff to be in a political arena.

    After a couple such emails and some odd answers, I became convinced that there was a “mainstream” mole high up in her organization.

    With those experiences under my belt, I wouldn’t vote for her if she was the only viable candidate running.

    This time she’s not worth the time of day because we have a mainstream candidate who will bring the troops home from all over the world, who will stop the silly waste of money by NO LONGER giving three billion dollars to Israel every January, who will jump start the economy by putting millions of Americans to work at decent paying jobs (over sixty thousand plus benefits and health care)….

    There’s no place in this equation for a Jill Stein unless she begins to support this candidate. Of course she won’t–whether it’s her ego that likes to campaign or whether it’s plain ignorance, she won’t campaign for only candidate who will make a difference and who will win.

    • Gregory Herr
      August 18, 2016 at 22:01

      Jill Stein displays nether egotism nor ignorance. Sorry some “mainstream mole” ruined it for you. Pray tell, who is this promising “mainstream” candidate?

      Why would the Greens have Johnson when there are important differences in their views? So on her first run she didn’t go the celebrity route? Is this a serious criticism?

      • Brad Owen
        August 19, 2016 at 05:12

        I think Jill & Greens are good enough to run with (I’m voting for her). The real problem that I mentioned on the “Expand Presidential debates” essay below, is does it make a difference what we think and want? Everything seems so rigged and controlled: phrasing of questions, the shaping & control of the MSM narrative, control of debates by the R/D duopoly, hackable voting machines, unresponsiveness of Representatives, spying activities of Deep State operatives to keep track of those getting too far “out of line”, etc…

        Just HOW do the people wrest the “power-to-rule” out of the hands of “The Establishment” of our day, when people increasingly see it as little more than a crime syndicate. In our historical experience, when “The Establishment” crumbles, there is war (1776 rejection of “The Establishment” of their day, 1860 rejection of “The Establishment” of their day). Is there a clean break available?? I somehow doubt a Gandhi approach will work (he faced a worn out, war-weary Empire that suffered MILLIONS of casualties by that point; we’re not there yet, and THIS Empire we face, is Transnational and stealthy Deep State)

        • Brad Owen
          August 19, 2016 at 07:23

          An friend at work had a simple suggest to check on how the people are really voting: wear a red or blue T-shirt while standing in line to vote and film it with iphones, go viral. I thought “hey, wear a green T-shirt, a green beret or baseball cap, green scarf, a green St. Patrick’s Day derby, etc… let’s see REALLY how well Jill did.” What color is associated with Libertarians? These are the four nation-wide parties. A national party is one that is on enough state ballots to conceivably garner 271 electoral votes. and THAT should be the criteria for Presidential debates.

          • J'hon Doe II
            August 19, 2016 at 14:09

            Brad Owen — “the etherealization of production”
            — FYI —

            UpWing/DownWing and Etherealization

            This article on Aeon Magazine proposed a new political dichotomy based on (as ever) views of human nature and what kind of future we are prepared for.

            The new dichotomy: Green (or DownWings) vs Black (or UpWings). [As opposed to Red/Blue (or Blue/Red if you’re American) Left-Wing/Right-Wing]

            UpWingers (or “Blacks”), above all, anticipate futures of greater energy consumption.They tend towards technological solutionism, their view of the future is in the accelerationism/singularitarian spectrum. Politically, UpWingers tend to follow the American Right’s libertarian view of freedom, and the Left’s view of transcendent humanity. Human potential is unlimited and chaos can be tamed. UpWingers might wave away DownWing concerns as being surmountable. Black is the sky.

            DownWingers (or “Greens”), broadly, anticipate futures of reduced energy consumption (through efficiency or destruction, if you’d like). They tend towards localization/resilience thought, their view of the future can range from declinist to hackstability (and even accelerationist in some respects). Politically, DownWingers tend to follow the Left’s view of communitarianism and the Right’s sense of natural order. Human nature is limited and chaos should be avoided. DownWingers might accuse UpWingers as hand-waving away complex problems with the dismissive answer, “We’ll think of something.” Green is the Earth.

            Environmentalists can be DownWing or UpWing depending on their approach and assumptions. Politically, we can point to a DownWing Right or an UpWing Left or a UpWing Right or a DownWing Left. I’d use Green and Black (much easier to say) but Green already means something to many people, and talking about “what Blacks believe” is potentially confusing to outsiders. Dystopias can be UpWing or DownWing (same for Utopias depending on the image). Accelerationists could be DownWing (although I have not encountered a DownWing Singularitarian- unless you count AI-induced catastrophism, maybe?). I’m not sure if Declinists can be UpWing in the long term- perhaps someone who believes that we can achieve Science Victory but won’t for political reasons or something.

            Steve Fuller, who introduced these terms in the Aeon article, created this dichotomy and is himself a committed UpWinger.


          • Brad Owen
            August 20, 2016 at 10:20

            J’hon, I read your reply up above and went to the article…verrry interesting. Thanks. I tend to agree with “we’ll think of something…” because that IS what people DO, relentlessly. Have you read “Breakthrough Power; How Quantum-leap New-energy Inventions can Transform Our World” by Jeanne Manning? Have you read about the Searl Effect Generator (SEG)? Color me Green Upwinger…from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs to LED bulbs= less ergs of energy and less amounts of matter to get equal or greater luminescence.

          • Brad Owen
            August 20, 2016 at 10:27

            Also; Nikola Tesla, T.H. Moray, Viktor Schauberger,Dr. Walter Russell, John Keely, Wilhelm Reich, Dr. Robert Adams, Floyd Sweet,Thomas Bearden, John Bedini, Wesley W. Gary, Hans Coler, and Edwin Vincent Gray are worth looking into, in addition to John R.R. Searl and R. Buckminster Fuller.

  4. Gregory Herr
    August 18, 2016 at 16:56

    Voting for Jill Stein is the statement that needs to be expressed. It certainly will not cause Clinton to win. If Trump wins rather than Clinton because people vote for Stein, then so be it. The Queen of Chaos must lose. Clearly, the Queen of Chaos MUST LOSE.

    • August 18, 2016 at 18:18

      Chomsky would diagree with you. I love the mann but I have to agree with you here.

      • Gregory Herr
        August 18, 2016 at 19:18

        I have read a good deal of Chomsky of whom there is much to appreciate. I once sent him an e-mail expressing my appreciation and received a pleasant reply.
        I have two major points of disagreement with him (I’m not up on what he thinks of Clinton, so I’ll leave that aside). His views on Kennedy (and Kennedy’s assassination) and on 9/11 are surprisingly strident and uncompromising.

        • TheScaleman
          August 19, 2016 at 07:40

          Chomsky knows how far he can push it without being blacklisted and having his grandchildren killed.

          • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
            August 21, 2016 at 16:52

            He’s critical of Kennedy due to his Cold War policy, and he critical of 9/11 conspiarcy theories because there IS NO CONSPIRACY.

  5. J'hon Doe II
    August 18, 2016 at 13:07

    Ol’ Hippy– “the un-regulated businesses are the problem. We now need more regulation not less.”

    Capitalism: a six-part series
    By Ilan Ziv

    Episode 3: Ricardo and Malthus: Did You Say Freedom?

    “To see weeds grow where we used to build things that were in every General Motors vehicle is just terrible.” —Art Reyes, electrician and former GM employee, Flint, Michigan

    In Flint, Michigan, a weed-strewn lot is all that’s left of a factory that once employed over 10,000 people. In Haiti, cheap subsidized American rice has flooded the market, forcing local producers out of business and into the capital, Port-au-Prince, where they struggle to find work. In Ghana, the International Monetary Fund’s “structural adjustment” has meant selling public assets to foreign investors and a market flooded with cheap imports.

    All of these events can be traced back to the thinking of two men born in the 18th century: David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus.

    Ricardo was a stockbroker who developed the notion of comparative advantage: that countries should specialize and meet each other’s needs through trade. Malthus was the demographer who feared a population explosion would cause the world to run out of food by 1890, and worked with Ricardo to eliminate public assistance for the poor in order to create a mobile and motivated workforce.

    Together, they would restructure society in the image of the market. But the origins of international trade are far from free. They involved heavy subsidies, market protection, and the barrels of guns pointed at recalcitrant nations.

    • Brad Owen
      August 18, 2016 at 14:37

      R. buckminster Fuller sort of refuted Malthus with his “acceleration of the etherealization of production” (Not sure that’s the exact quote). Basically he said that, because of our learning curve, our over-all trend is being able to perform more “work actions” per given unit of time, using fewer ergs of energy, and fewer pounds of material in the process (sort of trending towards the unobtainable point of doing everything instantaneously without using any energy or matter in the process). The technological base determines how many people that a given area of land can support…a hunter-gatherer society needs MORE square miles of land to live than does an advanced technological society. Of course we have to be “Fuller-smart” about it (the point of his “Synergetics” books), which pretty much eliminates the blind, lurching, grasping, piratical, “free market” ways of capitalism.

      • J'hon Doe II
        August 19, 2016 at 13:57

        Brad Owen — “The technological base determines how many people that a given area of land can support…

        That base was projected by IG Farben, the fascist / alchemist / tech wiz / death-by-gas executioner.

        Malthus must be proud of him. Elimination of humans advances with determination thru advance of science. (man-made-diseases, GE bugs, for example.)

        • Brad Owen
          August 20, 2016 at 08:37

          As I said; we must be “Fuller smart” about our advanced technological base, no “invisible hand” allowed to play.

          • Brad Owen
            August 20, 2016 at 12:45

            Nor the visible Hand of Evil be allowed to interfere.

          • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
            August 22, 2016 at 17:45

            Malthus only supported cutting supplies to the poor to prevent mass starvation. He was not fundamentally wrong, and anyone who thinks otherwise is proven wrong by starvation in developing countries. He did not say the world would run out of food in 1890, but that mass starvation would occur at that date. I know that’s what you meant, but the reason that didn’t happen was because of better agricultural techniques in the 19th century, and after the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s – everyone knows the Green Revolution prevented the deaths of millions.

            Your credibility and that of Jhon Doe II is destroyed by your anti-Semitism. Is that the real reason you hate Ricardo?

  6. Ol' Hippy
    August 18, 2016 at 12:56

    I live in NM and am familiar with Gary Johnson and he’s a straight shooter. But this day and time the environment and wars are my focus today. Johnson being a libertarian is all for individual freedom and might be a viable choice for the electorate. the un-regulated businesses are the problem. We now need more regulation not less. I’m washing my proverbial hands so to speak and going green; a choice that can not be worse than we have now; which is endless war and growing strife around the planet. It’s time wars end and a peace plan put in its place. For the sake of people with children, I have none, I hope the planet is worth living on in 50 years, I have grave doubts, I wish you all the best and vote to the best you can on this years abysmal runners.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 18, 2016 at 14:41

      You are an honor person, having no children and yet still wanting the best for others is certainly admirable. Bill Bodden once brought up how even a no vote for either of the major two parties reduces the winners political capital. If nothing else it will relief you of any guilt when all goes wrong. Besides that a voter is suppose to vote for what they believe in, not for a vote against the other candidate, who you really can’t seem to deal with in anyway. If Jill Stein should get over five percent of the voting electorate the Green Party may then apply for federal campaign finance in the next election. What’s more a good idea, is to start backing Green Party candidates to every office from dog catcher to the governor of your state. Although in some states who have closed primaries, this is easier said than done, it is still something to strife for. If nothing else by getting your voice heard may mean something, since you never know who’s listening. It worked for Thomas Paine, so why not you.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    August 18, 2016 at 11:09

    The two party system works well, because if the lobbyist and donor class had to fund another two parties, well then that would mean stretching out their campaign dollars to the point of infinity. Our whole corrupted election system needs a massive overall, and everybody knows it, but still it goes on. I have come to believe the only real reason we even have presidential elections, is because the media needs it to make money. Think about it, who benefits from all this madness? It certainly isn’t the voting public, or the rest of the suffering world. No, it is a system put in place to accommodate the special interest, and not necessarily American special interest, at that.

    On another note, I loved hearing what Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka had to say on their CNN Townhall appearance. I will live in the moment for now, and to those on the street that tell me that a vote for Stein is a vote for Donald Trump, well too bad I also have to live with my vote. I’m done voting for the lessor of the two evils….go Jill go Ajamu! Maybe voting for Jill and Ajamu will be like planting a seed, and my grandchildren will get the pleasure to see that tree grow, and enjoy the fruit it may bear.

    • Ol' Hippy
      August 18, 2016 at 13:14

      I gave up on the “lesser evil” casting(votes) last time. I vote green no one will say or ask, where were you? Because maybe worthless as a vote it makes a statement, such as it is. I can’t in good consciousness vote for either of the main parties. One wants war and the other?who knows what he’ll do; perhaps Pence will run things. This country was a great country in the past but it’s decline is everywhere one wants to look. We need a domestic policy that addresses these issues even if entails raising gas prices or taxes in general. A few of these issues and this country once again could be great. And no wars to boot!!

  8. Nancy
    August 18, 2016 at 11:04

    Exactly! It’s another example of sanctioned fraud. Open the debates!!

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