The campaign planes for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are parked nearby each other on the tarmac at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Friday.

The campaign planes for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are parked nearby each other on the tarmac at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Friday. Andrew Harnik/AP

No Third-Party Candidates in the First Debate

Only Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will compete in the first contest on September 26.

The presidential debate lineup is set. And Gary Johnson isn’t on it.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Friday that it has invited only Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to compete in the first general-election contest, on September 26. Though not entirely unexpected, the announcement is a significant blow to Libertarian Party nominee Johnson, the third-party candidate with the biggest chance to make an electoral impact this year. He’s spent months, if not years, publicly campaigning to get himself on the stage, arguing that debates are crucial to legitimizing his candidacy and to eliminating the two-party stranglehold on American politics. But with Friday’s announcement, Johnson is forced to sit out one of the most significant national events of the year. 

Though he’s not alone: Green Party nominee Jill Stein also did not qualify under the commission’s stringent criteria, which require candidates to average at least 15 percent support in select national polls. As the commission noted Friday, Johnson averaged 8.4 percent in those polls, with Stein averaging 3.2 percent. The libertarian always had more of a shot, though, in making the stage—he’d polled into the double digits in recent months, and was hoping the commission would give an inch if he showed a late-breaking surge. However, in the five polls the commission used to determine the lineup, his average wasn’t enough. “The CPD may scoff at a ticket that enjoys ‘only’ 9 or 10 percent in their hand-selected polls, but even percent represents 13 million voters, more than the total population of Ohio and most other states,” Johnson said in a statement Friday. “Yet, the Republicans and Democrats are choosing to silence the candidate preferred by those millions of Americans.”

Johnson and Stein claim the commission and its rules are flawed to begin with, because the group was established by the major parties and has no incentive to give third-party candidates a platform. Before it formalized qualifying criteria in 2000, the commission selected participants in a more subjective way, and a third-party candidate hasn’t appeared alongside Democrats and Republicans on the stage since 1992.

This year, with unpopular Clinton and divisive Trump at the helm of the major parties, Johnson, Stein, and their sympathizers have argued that voters deserve to hear alternative voices. Just this week the Johnson campaign took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to an attempt to persuade the commission. He’s had some high-profile people in his corner, too: Former Republican nominee Mitt Romney, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and various newspaper editorial boards have called for him to debate.    

The Clinton and Trump campaigns, meanwhile, have kept mum on his and Stein’s exclusion. Clinton in particular has little reason to be sympathetic: As my colleague Russell Berman reported this week, she’s losing chunks of young voters to the third-party candidates, and needs the debate to show them and others she’s the only alternative to Trump.

But while it might seem like a victory for her and Trump to have others out of the way, this year’s debate drama isn’t over yet: The commission plans to reevaluate which candidates qualify before every contest this fall. Until it’s all over, Johnson, at least, will never say die—or at least he won’t say so publicly: “There are more polls and more debates, and we plan to be on the debate stage in October,” he said Friday.