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:
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.