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Debates, polls silence Libertarian VA gubernatorial candidate

By   /   August 26, 2013  /   News  /   11 Comments

SHUT OUT: Robert Sarvis, Libertarian candidate for governor, isn't getting the same chance to appear in public debates or polls as his Democratic and Republican opponents.

SHUT OUT: Robert Sarvis, Libertarian candidate for governor, isn’t getting the same chance to appear in public debates or polls as his Democratic and Republican opponents.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — Virginians will have three options in November when they mark their choice for governor on the ballot.

But you wouldn’t know it from scanning coverage of the contentious race for the commonwealth’s highest seat in public office.

It’s hard to turn on the TV, read a tweet or open a web browser without seeing ads — usually attack ads — for either Republican Ken Cuccinelli or Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Many pollsters and debate gatekeepers, not to mention media outlets, are leaving Libertarian Robert Sarvis out of the conversation entirely.

And they won’t say why.

“I’m talking about issues that just aren’t being talked about,” Sarvis said in an interview with Watchdog.org, mentioning pension reform, decriminalizing minor drug offenses, creating a preferential-free and simple tax system and shrinking Virginia’s reliance on the federal government.

It’s an election year that seems like the perfect storm for a third option since voters don’t view either candidate very favorably. But recognition is an uphill battle for third-party candidates like Sarvis, who has never held public office.

They aren’t well known and people don’t think they have a chance, so they often aren’t included in polls. Because they aren’t included in polls, they can’t meet polling criteria for debating their opponents. They don’t have a chance to hash it out with opponents, so they don’t get public exposure. (The comparatively diminutive size of third-party war chests also doesn’t help.)

“It clearly is a pattern,” said Harry Wilson, pollster, professor and director for the Roanoke College Institute for Policy and Opinion Research. “If that’s one of the criteria that they (debate hosts) use, if pollsters don’t include candidates in these polls, then it’s basically impossible for them to meet that threshold.”

“Everybody says oh, you have to have certain numbers in the polls to get into our debate,” Sarvis said. “And so when the polls don’t include you, it makes it hard as well.”

The most recent poll snub was from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut, which released an extensive survey on the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor on Wednesday. The Libertarian was left out.

“No comment,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute, when asked why that was. “We don’t talk about how we do our decisions about who we put on and who we don’t.”

Larry Sabato, arguably the state’s most well known political pundit, tweeted his concern when the poll was released:

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 10.49.29 AM

Wilson was surprised Sarvis wasn’t included — and wondered why Quinnipiac wouldn’t say why. Previous polls by Roanoke College and Public Policy Polling have included Sarvis, with support for him at 5 and 7 percent, respectively.

“I would say that our rule is if you’re on the ballot, then you’re in our poll,” Wilson said. “… As another pollster, that’s interesting, because I would like to think — I know I make my fair share of mistakes — but I like to be about as transparent as I can possibly be.”

Sarvis hasn’t been invited to a single debate or major forum with the other candidates — including the big, first July 20 debate hosted by the Virginia Bar Association. The VBA, which has been hosting major state debates since 1985, wouldn’t say why either.

“Since we’ve been doing this for a number of years, we do have a set of criteria,” Marilyn Shaw, VBA communications director, told Watchdog.org. “And it was true that Sarvis’ campaign did not meet the minimum criteria.”

But Shaw, asked several times, wouldn’t say what those criteria are. She did say there are 10 of them, one of which is polling performance.

NBC 12 has reported the VBA’s criteria say the candidate “must have a reasonable chance of being elected.”

“We’re a non-partisan organization,” Shaw said. “We don’t take any steps that would promote or not promote any candidate. So, our non-partisan position is very important for us. I’m sorry, I can’t release it.”

Sarvis said including his voice in debates would naturally help steer the race away from negative attacks to focus on policy issues instead.

“In a two-person race, you slam your opponent, the only other person that benefits is you,” Sarvis said. “But in a three-way race, taking one personal stab makes two people look relatively good in comparison.”

The debate exclusion has political observers frustrated, too — like the editorial pages of the Roanoke Times and Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Libertarians’ problem is an institutional, ground-game one, too, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

“And that is that Libertarians, unlike Democrats and Republicans, don’t really have a presence outside of individual enthusiasts around the community, the county, the city, the state” — especially outside of election season, Kidd said. “I couldn’t tell you where the nearest Libertarian field office is, for example.”

The media isn’t always doing its job either, Sarvis said.

“I think the real tragedy and the inexcusable behavior is the journalists who have entirely ignored it, especially to the extent that they will write articles that quote people saying, ‘I wish I had a third option.’ And then, not even mentioning the third option,” Sarvis said.

(That’s what the National Journal reported in a recent article.)

“I mean, that I think actually is journalistic malpractice,” Sarvis continued. “I think journalists have a duty to mention it. The duty isn’t to me — it is to the Virginia voters.”

As long as those setting the political arena don’t let Sarvis participate, will he — or any third-party candidate — ever have a fair shot at the ballot box?

— Kathryn Watson is a reporter for the Virginia Bureau of Watchdog.org, and can be reached at [email protected]


Kathryn formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • James Maynard

    It is because both sides (democrat and republican) are working towards the same goal: more power for the government, less for you and me! They can’t allow someone in there saying “the people have the power. Let’s stay out of their wallets/bedrooms/personal lives/fill in the blank… it’s not our place to decide.” That is the libertarian idealogy, and statist politicians cannot stand to cede their perceived power to the people they want to rule over. “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it!” – George Carlin

  • Prospector69

    Third party candidates are pretty well marginalized by the press. The press like a one on one, head to head fight. It sells papers and air time. But to tell you the truth, I’d like to see a third candidate be able to get in there a hash out the things that the tried and party true candidates are avoiding. Details on how they are going to accomplish what they are promising. Will the plan work? What are the candidates not telling us about their promises? Minor things like that.
    A third party candidate can offer a great deal to the political debate, a view of what is good for the people of the state and how can we get there!

  • It is a Pepsi or Coke debate, RC need not apply.

  • James Crawford

    If I lived in Virginia, I’d vote for Sarvis over the two Progressives…without even a second thought about it.

  • Matthew Cremeans

    Vote for the unknown, Vote out the incumbent. Democrats AND Republicans are the problem because they are the Left shoe and the Right shoe of the problem person.

  • Cowboydroid

    I believe Peter Brown with Quinnipiac was also accused of leaving Gary Johnson out of the Presidential polling last year, and also gave some convoluted, ill-reasoned response.

    Or maybe that was one of the other polling institutes…who knows, seems like they all follow the same orders from the established party power structure.

  • BonnieB23

    Well, I think people who care about this must do something about it themselves. Get the word out that there IS a third option and make a lot of noise about it. MAKE IT NEWS. Then there is a chance that the media will pick it up.

  • Jeff From VA

    Bonnie, I couldn’t agree more! Since I’m planning to vote for him, we can help make sure Rob Sarvis doesn’t get marginalized by the media. I’ve been sending tons of emails to journalists (especially those who cover Virginia and national politics for their publication/TV station), and politely asking them to do a story on Rob and his campaign if they haven’t done so already. For the most part, they have delivered.

    One great example of that is when I emailed Alex Pappas of the Daily Caller several days ago asking him to do a story on Rob, and he replied that he didn’t know much about him but he said he’d look into it. Thankfully enough, he came through! See for yourself: http://dailycaller.com/2013/08/26/libertarian-pushes-himself-as-alternative-in-nasty-virginia-governors-race/

    I’m also going to send a letter to the editor of my local newspaper telling them that Rob should be given a chance to debate his opponents on the same stage. I suggest you guys do as I did if you’re tired of seeing him sidelined by the MSM, but we must keep it civil so they don’t think we’re a bunch of rude a-holes, thus shutting the door of opportunity straight in our faces.

  • SixSixSix

    Why the hell can’t we jhave a worker’s party? Most people work for a living, but not one party, not even the small ones, give a crap about the 95% of people who work for a living.

    With Republicans and Democratic totally representing the interests of the economic ruling elite, the Libertarians are totally redundant. Who cares and for good reason.

  • SixSixSix

    Both sides and the Libertarians too only want to increase the power of the hereditary economic ruling elite. It is not faceless government bureaucrats doing it to you, but Big Money. And it is working brilliantly, they have you pointed in totally the wrong direction. Hope you like bail outs and tiny taxes for the super rich. Because you got it. And now you want a party that will give them even more. Wake up and smell the economic blood, because it is yours. Why do you keep voting against you own interest? They sure as hell don’t.

  • Chris

    Robert Sarvis should be in the Debates! Dont let these guys manhalndle politics just because people have heard their names more!