If there were set rules governing participation in TV debates, rows wouldn't happenby Peter Kellner / January 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Don’t blame David Cameron; at least not completely. Of course he is trying to avoid taking part in any leaders’ television debates; of course his passion for fairness for the Greens is as shallow as it is sudden. But the broadcasters could have made it harder for him to wriggle.
As it happens, I think their proposal makes a lot of sense: Nigel Farage taking part in one debate, Nick Clegg in two and Cameron and Ed Miliband in all three. What they failed to do was create a clear set of criteria from which they derived this arrangement.
America’s experience is instructive. The first TV debates were held in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. They were followed by a sixteen-year lull. Only since 1976 have debates been a regular fixture. Today it would be unthinkable for them not to take place.
One reason why they are now accepted is that a clear formula has been established, and applied at every presidential election since 1988. No major candidate would dare challenge it. The formula, nowadays administered by a private, independent organisation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, has two main components. To take part in the debates, a candidate must (a) appear on the ballot paper in enough states to have a theoretical chance of winning 270 electoral college votes and therefore winning the election; and (b) enjoy at least 15 per cent support according to an average of recent opinion polls. (It was under this 15 per cent rule that Ross Perot took part in the 1992 debates, as a third-force candidate.)