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…

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