The Pulse: Progress for third-party candidates?

There have been three significant developments since I last wrote about the prospect of a third-party candidate in the presidential election debates:

A federal lawsuit with that goal has been filed against the Federal Election Commission.

A cochair of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) expressed openness to the inclusion of third-party candidates.

Trumpnado.

How this issue resolves could determine the presidency.

Right now, to participate in the debates, a candidate must be polling above 15 percent nationally just before they commence. No third-party candidate has shared the stage with the Republican and Democratic nominee since Ross Perot in 1992, and Perot himself could not have met that threshold, which was implemented in 2000. (Perot was polling below 10 percent when he was admitted by acquiescence of the political parties.) Any change to the 15 percent rule would have to come from the CPD.

Several constituencies would like to see that change. Perhaps none better organized and funded than ChangetheRule.org, a group of 50 prominent Americans, including Sen. Angus King (I., Maine); former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican; and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat. Their goal is to make the two major-party candidates defend their positions against the middle, especially as, according to a January Gallup survey, 43 percent of Americans (an all-time high) view themselves as politically independent.

Peter Ackerman, a successful businessman who cofounded FreshDirect, is a force behind the effort to expand debate participation by changing the 15 percent rule. In 2012, he spearheaded an effort called Americans Elect, which sought to create a national online primary to nominate a "balanced coalition ticket." While Ackerman succeeded in gaining ballot access, his effort fell short when no candidate received the minimum 5,000 support clicks.

"The rule that was designed by the Democrats and Republicans is impossible to hurdle," he said.

He sees the current situation as an electoral Catch-22: If you can't get in the debates, you're not going to be a legitimate candidate; if you're not a legitimate candidate, you can't get into the debates.

"The key element of reform here is moving the designation date from 50 days to six months, and to basically allow the American people to get to know an independent candidate who competed hard for that single position," Ackerman said.

His current proposal: Anyone who can get on enough state ballots to collectively total 270 Electoral College votes by April 30 will have his or her name placed into a national, independent presidential primary, America's Primary, featuring a series of five debates with knockout rounds that the American people can vote on via the Internet to determine a winner.

"There are amazing Americans out there," he said. "People who have gone through pinnacles of business, military, universities, unions, who simply will not run because they are excluded from getting any legitimacy because the debate rules don't give them legitimacy except with 50 days to go."

Meanwhile, as Ackerman lobbies the CPD for change, Alexandra Shapiro, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk now representing Level the Playing Field (formerly Americans Elect), has filed a lawsuit against the FEC seeking to have it force the CPD to perform its stated "nonpartisan" mission and use "objective criteria to decide who can participate in debates."

Paying close attention to these machinations is Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee who is the Republican cochair of the CPD. "There's no question the American people are unhappy with both political parties," Fahrenkopf concedes. "They're unhappy with the whole political environment, and they want change. If there's 43 percent who are independents, they're going to be looking at [Ackerman's] plan and if he can put it together."

The 15 percent rule, he said, is something the CPD adopted from the League of Women Voters. "We look at it every four years to see whether or not there should be modifications," he said.

"No decision has been made on whether we're going to stay at 15 percent, we're going to lower it, or eliminate it altogether. . . . I'm not saying that we're not going to do what they suggest, but those decisions haven't been made and we're taking them very seriously. . . . And, we will announce in advance of next year's debates by at least one year."

In defense of the current rule, Fahrenkopf questioned whether a candidate who is not at 15 percent by mid-September 2016 is really a serious candidate. "Do you really have a realistic chance to become the president of the United States?" he asks. "I'm not sure." And he takes umbrage with the idea that the CPD is acting in a partisan fashion.

"The commission is made up of some people who you know as Republican, some Democrats, and some independents - Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana; Charlie Gibson, former anchor of ABC World News Tonight; and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense."

Enter Donald Trump. On Wednesday, he told Kevin Cirilli of The Hill that a third-party run is within the realm of possibility if the RNC continues to act "very foolish" and "not supportive." Ackerman notes that Trump will have to expand his appeal if he wants to gain access to the debate stage in the general.

"Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have pretty much the same amount of support in their parties," Ackerman said, "and if you really dig down . . . it's not so much only a source of support for them but also a protest vote against what the American people feel they're being served up. . . . Now, if Trump or Sanders wants to come and participate in America's Primary, they have to realize that once this is known to be a catalyst for the winner going into the presidential debates, it will attract a group of candidates that are attractive both to moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, as well as independents."

Pundits still debate whether Perot pulled more votes from George H.W. Bush than Bill Clinton in 1992, but there is no mystery as to the potential impact of Trump. Last week, an ABC News-Washington Post poll showed that, in a head-to-head matchup, Hillary Clinton beats Jeb Bush, 51-41. But when Trump's name joins that mix, her 10-point lead jumps to 18 - Clinton 47, Bush 29, and Trump 19. No wonder Jeb has been hesitant to spar with the Donald.


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Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays

on CNN.