The Three Types of Fringe Candidate Who Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Debate

All three shouldn't be allowed to suck time away from the debates.

Generally speaking, there are three types of fringe independent/third party candidates, all of which happen to be represented in the current Massachusetts governor race:

1. The Spotlight Sharer. This is probably the most common: the candidate with an under-represented point of view, who uses the attention of a large, contested election to draw attention to particular issues or ideologies. Scott Lively, with his Biblical-government notions, is one of these; so were Jill Stein, Grace Ross, and Carla Howell, among others who have run for Governor in the Commonwealth. None were really ever going to be Governor, but by joining the contest, they were able to spread their message in a way they couldn’t otherwise.

2. The Hopeless Romantic. These candidates, represented by Jeff McCormick in this race, start off truly believing that A) they should hold the office in question, and B) there is a realistic possibility of winning as an independent. And sometimes, they’re right! It does happen (although, not in Massachusetts). And sometimes—arguably in McCormick’s case, and Tim Cahill’s four years ago, but probably not in Christy Mihos’s in 2006—they enter the race with a possible path to victory, under certain conditions, but those conditions fail to pan out. In any case, by this stage of the campaign we know which ones have significant traction and which don’t, but have too much vanity to drop out. McCormick, polling at or around two percent after a year, a million-dollars-plus, and inclusion in two televised debates, is a don’t.

3. The Party Placeholder. This can often blur with the other two categories, but it’s often pretty clear by this stage when you have a candidate who is just on the ticket to try to maintain—or in Evan Falchuk’s case, create—legitimacy for a third party, and in some cases future ballot access. Falchuk has been pretty open that the entire raison d’etre of his campaign is to garner three percent of the vote, which would provide ballot access for his fledgling United Independent Party. Secondarily, he has used the Spotlight Sharer technique to pitch his views, but in the service of advancing the party—and mostly, those ideas have been that the two-party system is broken and we need a new party.

Now, I have nothing against any of these three types of candidates, or the three we have in this race in particular. I think generally speaking the Commonwealth should make it easier, if anything, for outsiders to get onto the ballot than is currently the case.

And, I’m all in favor of the media covering those candidates, even when it’s obvious that those candidates are simply using the process to force the media to pay attention to them. (And wish that I had been able to cover Falchuk and McCormick, both of whom I’ve found impressive and interesting.) But the media isn’t obligated to. Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker have actually demonstrated, through an open, competitive primary process, that they are not simply doofuses standing up with “Interview me, I want to be governor!” hand-painted on a cardboard sign. Lively, McCormick, and Falchuk, I’m sorry to say, do not begin with that presumption. They have demonstrated only that they have some combination of cash and friends to get the required number of signatures, which history has shown is slightly, but only slightly, more indicative of public support and office-holding credentials than holding up a hand-painted cardboard sign.

As I say, I think the media should try to cover those candidates, to give the public a chance to sort them out. But that’s not without a cost: local news coverage resources are scarce and getting scarcer, so a journalist’s time and resources paying attention to an Evan Falchuk is going to come out of potentially covering the state Treasurer’s race, or county Probate race, or state senate race, or ballot question. Can anyone seriously argue that those have received too much coverage?

In any event, we are now at a point in the campaign where we know where the candidates fit in the paradigm I’ve suggested above—and we know that they are all fringe candidates with no significant level of support for becoming governor. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed, or are finished doing what they’re doing. But it does mean that we can stop maintaining the possibility that any of them might be one of those independent candidates who really does have a serious chance to be elected.

And there is a real, serious choice at hand for people to decide which of the two who might be elected, will be. Including the three independent candidates in debates at this point reduces each major-party candidate from roughly 25 minutes to about 11 minutes speaking over the course of a one-hour debate, and significantly reduces the types of direct back-and-forth between the two that are particularly helpful to viewers. (You can feel free to argue that media outlets should provide more, longer, and prime-time debates; meanwhile, let’s focus on what to do with the few grudgingly offered 7 p.m. hours available in the real world.)

And for what? To assist the independents with their personal search for spotlight, vanity, or party legitimacy.

I’m not knocking anybody for using the campaign process for their purposes. But actually selecting a governor is important too, and it’s time to give voters the best chance to judge the candidates who are actually trying to get elected.


(Full disclosure: I am an analyst for WGBH, one of the Boston consortium co-sponsors of an upcoming gubernatorial debate—although, as far as I know, I have no influence on how that gets run or who gets invited.)