Confirmed: No Gary Johnson in the first presidential debate

Lotta blame to go around for delivering us to a point where Johnson’s inclusion in the debates is itself debatable. If Hillary Clinton hadn’t been so sleazy and underwhelming to young voters, the engine of Johnson’s support, his numbers might be in the low single digits instead of the high single digits and he’d be an afterthought. If Donald Trump had any strategic sense and realized sooner that Johnson is an asset to him in dividing Democrats’ younger base, he would have started demanding Johnson’s inclusion in the debates months ago.

And if Johnson himself had a basic grasp of traditional retail politics, he might have pushed his own numbers up to the point where he met the 15 percent cut-off to begin with.

A series of rallies aimed at showing voters that he’s a real honest-to-goodness candidate and not just a guy who shows up on CNN every few days for interviews might have paid dividends. Oh well. The axe has fallen, at least for the first debate:

With respect to the third criterion, on August 15, 2016, CPD announced the five polls it would rely upon, which were selected with the professional advice of Dr. Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief of Gallup. The polls were selected based on: the reliable frequency of polling and sample size used by the polling organization; the soundness of the survey methodology employed by the polling organization; and the longevity and reputation of the polling organization. The five selected polls are: ABC-Washington Post; CBS-New York Times; CNN-Opinion Research Corporation; Fox News; and NBC-Wall Street Journal.

With the assistance of Dr. Newport, the Board determined that the polling averages called for in the third criterion are as follows: Hillary Clinton (43%), Donald Trump (40.4%), Gary Johnson (8.4%) and Jill Stein (3.2%). Accordingly, Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, and Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, qualify to participate in the September 26 presidential debate and the October 4 vice-presidential debate, respectively. No other candidates satisfied the criteria for inclusion in the September 26 and October 4 debates. The criteria will be reapplied to all candidates in advance of the second and third presidential debates.

If Johnson had been added to the first debate and made a splash, it might have cemented some of the soft support he’s getting from millennials that Clinton is now trying to claw back. She’d be in deep trouble in that scenario, faced with defections among Obama’s coalition at the very moment that white college grads seem to be coming home to Trump and the GOP. On the other hand, depending on which states Johnson targets, having him offstage at the debate could end up helping Trump too. Team Gary thinks that out west, where Johnson is strongest, he’s a bigger threat to Trump’s tally than to Clinton’s:

Johnson’s campaign manager Ron Nielson confirmed that his team is seeing Johnson pull roughly evenly from Trump and Clinton, but he said his candidate has targeted the western states as he races to gain name recognition in an attempt to take votes primarily from Trump — a result that would cheer Clinton.

“We hope as we move forward in some of these western states like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada that as Johnson moves toward second place, some of the Trump folks will see that Trump will not win that state and join us against Hillary Clinton,” said Nielson. “These states could determine the outcome of the presidential election, and that’s why we targeted them.”

A split right-wing vote in Colorado and Nevada would be poisonous to Trump. Keeping Johnson out of the debate spotlight might not be so bad for him after all.

Should he have been included, though? The argument against it, obviously, is that no one who’s incapable of cracking even 10 percent consistently in national polls is worth bothering about. Normally I’d agree, but he’s a serious X factor in this race: Johnson is now ahead of Trump in multiple polls in the 18-29 age group and he’s in the teens fairly reliably among independents. You don’t see third-party numbers like that among major demographics in a normal election year. You also don’t see the two major-party nominees saddled with historically terrible favorable ratings. One of the basic reasons not to include fringier candidates at the debates is that they’ll suck up speaking time to largely no effect, with Democratic and Republican voters unlikely to stray from their usual tribal paths. This year, because Trump and Clinton are so widely disliked, there’s reason to believe Johnson really could make a move. He ain’t winning the election, needless to say, but he’s genial and well-spoken, the occasional “What is Aleppo?” brain fart aside. I can imagine him using a solid debate to turn eight in the polls into, say, 16 percent, with very unpredictable consequences for the two nominees. The debate commission is doing what it can to ensure it really will be a binary choice for voters this year.

Exit question: Should Johnson and Jill Stein take Evan McMullin up on his offer for a third-party debate? Normally the Libertarian candidate has nothing to lose by generating media attention, but Johnson does have something to lose here — he could lose some of the anti-Trump conservative voters who are currently backing him to McMullin when they realize that McMullin is a better fit for them ideologically. Ducking debate opponents is a weird spot for a single-digit candidate to be in, but Johnson may be there.