How many candidates will be on the debate stage this fall?

When the presidential race was still evolving into its final shape, many of us were anticipating the fireworks which would surely come when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finally faced off in a head to head confrontation. Clinton certainly has plenty of weaknesses to attack and Trump was seen as the sort of guy who would most assuredly “go there” and probably several steps beyond. But would he cross the line and be seen as a bully? Would he implode into some pit of conspiracy theories? So many questions swirled around the possibilities. But now that stage may wind up being diluted. Politico reports that the hosts of the debates are already looking at adding at least a third lectern to the stage… and possibly more?

The venues that will host the presidential debates are drawing up plans for a three-person forum that would provide a lectern for a third-party candidate to stand on stage next to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The directive comes from producers working for the Commission on Presidential Debates and it’s meant, they say, to force the university hosts to be prepared and not as a reflection of the state of the race. But it could give supporters of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein hope as they push an alternative to the historically unpopular major party nominees.

“With [former Gov.] Gary Johnson polling in some places more than double digits, they might have, some of our production people may have said, ‘Just in case, you need to plan out what that might look like,’” Commission on Presidential Debates co-chair Mike McCurry told POLITICO. “We won’t know the number of invitations we extend until mid-September.”

We’ve been down this road before in the primaries but the stakes get considerably higher in the fall. When there were seventeen Republicans hoping for the nomination and the race was so young that many of them had very little in the way of national name recognition, what were the debate sponsors supposed to do? Chopping people out of the race before the starting gun had sounded would be decidedly unfair so compromises had to be made. On the Democrats’ side there were really only two choices, but I suppose they had to include the wild card candidates just to spice things up and keep the proceedings moving along.

But now we have a two person race. I won’t even offer an apology to those offended by by that declaration because anyone who hasn’t become completely unmoored from reality knows that the next President of the United States is not going to be Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or Evan McMullin. (McMullin won’t even be on the ballot in nearly half the states under the most optimistic of circumstances.) Are we really doing the voting public any favors by getting “more voices” into the mix at that point? Yes, I’ve joked around on Twitter about how Stein should be on the stage, but that’s only because she will probably draw votes exclusively from Hillary Clinton’s pool.

Traditionally the bar has been set at an average of 15% in major polling results, keeping all third party candidates off the stage unless your name was Ross Perot. The latest RCP average has Gary Johnson at 8.6. We can debate whether he pulls more votes from Trump or Clinton all day long, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Johnson isn’t going to win and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll carry so much as a single state. Yes, I’ve read Allahpundit’s speculation that McMullin might be able to carry Utah, but that doesn’t turn this eleventh hour Hail Mary shot into a serious candidacy. It’s yet another obvious attempt to elect Hillary Clinton by robbing Trump of some traditionally Republican electoral votes.

As far as I’m concerned, the Commission on Presidential Debates needs to leave the 15% bar in place. If Johnson is actually competitive he should be able to reach that level of support with no problem. And if he can’t, then he’s nothing but a distraction to the voters who will elect the next president. We’re ready for a one on one match up and that’s what we should get.