presidential debates are the mega-events of the fall campaign.
are high as the candidates face each other, across a single stage,
a month of the election, before a television audience of tens of
of people. A debate can reveal the candidates' differences and
to think on their feet or it can devolve into a scripted exercise
on a joint press conference or an exchange of
While derided by some as essentially exchanges of
the fall presidential and vice presidential debates are seen as crucial
to the candidates'
success. This cycle there was a
possibility that three candidates might be
on the stage for the first
time since 1992. Libertarian Gary Johnson looked like he might be
able to meet the 15-percent polling threshhold (+); however
on Sept. 16, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that he
had fallen short (+).
||Mon. Sept. 26, 2016
||Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY|
||Tues, Oct. 4, 2016
||Sun. Oct. 9, 2016
||Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO|
||Wed. Oct. 19, 2012
||University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV|
The audiences for these mega-events are in the tens of millions. According to Nielsen's data on broadcast and cable networks:
- the first presidential debate at Hofstra drew an estimated audience of 84.0 million viewers, a record;
- the vice presidential debate at Longwood University drew 37.2 million (considerably off from the 2012 vice president debate, which drew 51.4 million);
- the second presidential debate in St. Louis drew 66.5 million (compared to 65.6 million for the second debate in 2012); and
- the third presidential debate in Las Vegas drew 71.6 million viewers (compared to 59.2 million for the third debate in 2012).
The Commission on Presidential Debates
The Commission on
Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, has
organized all general election debates since 1988 (this is their eighth
cycle). Previous debates
sponsored by the League of Women Voters (1976, 1980, and 1984) and the
networks (1960). The CPD develops the candidate selection
are used to evaluate which candidates it will invite to
It proposes dates and locations of debates. It lines up corporate
sponsors and oversees preparations for these important events. In
each of the last four cycles the CPD has held three presidential
and one vice presidential debate, with the vice presidential debate
following the first presidential debate. The earliest debate has
occurred on Sept. 25 and the latest on Oct. 22. The CPD
debates have become very well established and although
organizations have put forth proposals for debates, none have come to
|CPD posts site selection criteria
|Deadline to submit proposal to
(Number of Applicants)
|CPD review of proposals and site surveys||...
|CPD annouces criteria (for 2004,
|CPD announces proposed sites, dates,
|CPD announces formats
|CPD announces moderators
||Aug. 13 (+)||Sept. 2
|Campaigns reach agreement/MOU
||Oct. 3 (+)
See CPD press releases.
Critics charge that the CPD is a bipartisan rather than a nonpartisan organization, and can scarcely be expected to be fair to third party and independent candidates. (The CPD is headed by co-chairs Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael D. McCurry and a board of directors (+)). Critics also question the CPD's reliance on corporate money and maintain that it lacks transparency.
The core question boils down to who is on the debate stage. Clearly some limits must be set, for with too many candidates these events will become unmanageable. Starting in 2000, the CPD has used three simple criteria. (In earlier cycles, the CPD used a complicated set of "objective criteria" that drew much criticism). To participate in the debates, candidates must:
(a) be constitutionally eligible;
(b) have ballot access in enough states to win a majority of electoral votes (at least 270); and
(c) have a level of national support of at least 15 % as measured in polls done by five selected national polling organizations.
Third party candidates
raised strong objections to their exclusion from the debates.
argue that the 15-percent threshhold is arbitrary and too high.
Challenges to the Commission on Presidential Debates and its
have proven unsuccessful over the years, but there are several
efforts underway this cycle to change the way things are done.
In 2014, Level the Playing Field, the successor to Americans Elect,
filed an administrative complaint and a petition for rulemaking with
the FEC charging the FEC's 15-percent rule violates the law and
proposing a new rule based on a signature drive competition among third
party and independent candidates. Those candidates on the ballot
in enough states to garner 270 electoral votes, would, as they seek to
gain ballot access in the first part of 2016, compete to obtain the
most signatures. (Level the Playing Field estimated that number
at four million). This proposed rule would ensure the presence of
one third party or independent candidate on the stage. Unlike
many efforts to challenge the CPD, the "Change the Rule" campaign has
the backing of many high profile individuals including Sen. Angus King
(I-VT) and a number of former governors, Senators and congressmen (+).
Additionally, Level the Playing Field and the Libertarian and Green
parties filed a
lawsuit charging that "the Commission on Presidential
Debates, a private organization, formed by the chairs of the Democratic
and Republican parties, unfairly and intentionally limits participation
in the nationally-televised debates to the Democratic and Republican
nominees -- placing other national party nominees at a severe and
unjust disadvantage (1, 2)."
[PDF] was filed against the FEC in the U.S. District
Court for the Distriict of Columbia on June 22, 2015.
Also on the legal front, Gary Johnson's Our America Initiative led work on a lawsuit filed Sept. 29, 2015 against the CPD challenging the exclusion of qualified candidates violates federal anti-trust laws as well as the First Amendment (+).
Also of note, the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform considered a modest recommendation on third party participation, but could not reach a consensus for its June 2015 report.
Legal activity by minor party
1996, 2000, 2004 and 2012 suggests any legal or legislative efforts
In Nov. 2001, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced a resolution in Congress that sought to lower the threshhold for participation to 5-percent (H.C.R. 263) but it did not go anywhere.
In 2004, Open
Debates, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit "committed to reforming the
debate process," established a Citizens Debate Commission in an effort
to replace the CPD. The Citizens Debate Commission proposed five
presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, what
it termed "real and transparent" presidential debates as opposed to
and deceptive events proposed by the bipartisan Commission on
Debates (CPD)." (August
16, 2004 letter) Open Debates took
other actions. On Feb. 14, 2004 Open Debates filed a complaint
the FEC alleging "that presidential debates sponsored by the CPD are
by the major parties in violation of FEC debate regulations." The
Open Debates complaint sought to have "the FEC prohibit the CPD from
future corporate-sponsored presidential debates." And on April
Open Debates filed a complaint with the IRS in an attempt to revoke the
tax status of the CPD.
Given the lack of success of the various legal efforts it is not surprising that there was no noticeable legal activity in the 2008.
In 2012 the campaign of Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson decided to have another go at it, employing a new argument in a Sept. 21 lawsuit charging the CPD with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 (+). The Johnson campaign's effort failed. Green candidate Jill Stein weighed in with an Oct. 22 lawsuit charging that the CPD and others had "deprived her of her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and free speech, as well as her statutorily protected civil rights" (+). That too failed. Excluded candidates and their supporters are left with generally ineffectual protests. For example, Occupy the Debates (fb) sought to encourage an alternative conversation and activities.
Each cycle the CPD tweaks its formats to try to
improve the debates. For 2016 the report of the Annenberg
Working Group on
Presidential Campaign Debate Reform, released June 17, 2015,
number of recommendations "to
the quality, reach
and relevance of debates." This was a very significant report,
with recommendations in three areas: expanding and enriching debate
content; broadening the accessibility of the debates; and improving the
transparency and accountability of the debate process. One of the
most noteworthy proposals was to "eliminate on-site audiences for
debates other than the town hall, and, in the process, reduce the need
for major financial sponsors and audiences filled with donors."
This was a direct challenge to the way the CPD has done business, and
was not implemented.
In past cycles there have been other tweaks. For the 2012 debates, seeking to focus more time on big issues, the CPD tried a new format in which the first and last debates were divided into six approximately 15-minute long segments or pods. Even critic George Farah of Open Debates stated that, "The Commission deserves praise for responding to its critics and advocating for more informative debate formats." However, he went on to outline "major problems" with the CPD debates (>). The 2008 formats featured looser time constraints.
The format of a debate has a critical impact on nature of the exchanges that occur or do not occur and on the amount of information viewers are able to learn. The most obvious parameter to consider is who is on the stage and who is not, but there are many other factors. Is there a live audience and are they controlled or disruptive? Is the subject matter confined to one area, such as the economy, or is it more wide-ranging? What is the time limit on candidate responses and on rebuttals? Finally, who asks the questions? The 1960 and 1976-1988 presidential debates exclusively used the panel of reporters. More recently the single moderator and town hall formats have come into favor. The town hall format was first used in the Richmond, VA debate in 1992. Having an audience of undecided voters pose the questions likely results in a broader range of questions, but on the downside this format does not foster follow-up. One format which has not been attempted is to have the candidates question each other directly. The Annenberg report recommends increasing direct candidate exchanges, as well as using "alternate formats for some of the debates, including a chess clock model that gives each candidate an equal amount of time to draw upon."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has challenged the substantiveness of the CPD-sponsored debates. In an appearance in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 12, 2005 he called for an end to the current tightly formated presidential debates saying they "trivialize the whole process." Instead, Gingrich said, the candidates should engage in a straightforward dialogue without a moderator for 90 minutes. During a "Lincoln at Cooper Union" dialogue held on Feb. 28, 2007, Gingrich stated "I propose that we challenge every candidate in both parties to make a commitment before the nominating process begins that if they become the nominee they will agree from Labor Day to the election to nine 90 minute dialogues, one a week for nine weeks..."
the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential debate agreements which run 53
apiece. They are bizarre examples of lunacy. No serious
should agree to them. They're childish. You don't elect a
to memorize. You elect a president to have wisdom, to have
thought, to reflect." —Newt Gingrich
Another critic, Ralph Nader, has argued that 21 presidential debates should be held, organized by communities around the country.
the present, stifling, programmed three debates by the CPD,
these twenty one debates would throw aside many of the taboos, bring
the people into the process, address regional needs, excite larger
voter turnout and compel the candidates to be better, more forthright
candidates," —Ralph Nader (+).
While it is nice to contemplate the idea of a series of dialogues or
thoughtful discussions of issues, such debates are unlikely to ever
occur because, the candidates and their
campaigns have the final word on formats and the risk of participating
in a free-ranging series of events in the closing months of the
campaign is too great.
There is no requirement that presidential candidates participate in debates, but it would be quite damaging to be seen as avoiding or blocking the debates, particularly since the candidates have, at least until recently, taken federal funds. When it comes to the number, timing and formats of the debates, as well as who will participate, there is a lot of discussion, but invariably the major party candidates and their campaigns have the final word. The CPD proposal is on the table and serves as a starting point, but each campaign acts in its own best interest. The goal is to create the most favorable possible set of circumstances for their candidate. (The memoranda of understanding from two of the debates that have come to light show the minute details involved: 2004 [PDF] and via Time magazine's Mark Halperin 2012 (>)).
In recent cycles the debate negiotiations have
occurred quietly and without fanfare. In 2008
carried out their negotiations out of the
negotiations that made no news.
In past cycles, however, there had been ritual debates
the debates. For several weeks the two
major campaigns jockeyed back and forth haggling over details big and
from the number and format of the debates to the podium height and
and who is or is not acceptable as a moderator.
In the lead up to the
the candidates undergo intensive preparations. Briefing books are
put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates. Media
sometimes provide glimpses of these rehearsals. This cycle there
was a marked contrast between the two candidates' approaches, as
Clinton made intensive preparations, including staying off the campaign
trail for days in advance of the encounters, while Trump did much less
prep and continued to hold rallies. There are also efforts to set expectations.
communications to set the
stage as well as prebuttals rebutting points that they expect to be
made. Closer to the debate, the candidates may be seen engaging
in public displays of confidence such as throwing a
baseball, jogging, or giving a thumbs up.
During the debate, citizens watching on television or
Internet form initial impressions of the candidates based on their
claims, assertions, gaffes or awkward moments and body language.
(People who listen on the radio may form very different
An ongoing and vibrant discussion unfolds in the social media, as
Tweets, Facebook postings and the like amplify key moments. Not
all the claims and assertions are true. The social media and
traditional media will bring misstatements to the fore, but some have
argued that a fact checking role should be integrated into the debates
as they proceed.
Watch program to encourage debate-watching groups around the
country. For 2012 the CPD announced "The Voice Of..."
The rapid response units go into high gear
during and after a debate,
working feverishly to produce rebuttals to various claims; these
documents are e-mailed out throughout the evening. Following each
one of the most unique and fascinating scenes in American
Top campaign staff, campaign surrogates and party leaders gather in the
media filing center and spin reporters, telling them what they have
seen. On opposite sides of the filing center chairs are set up
Democratic and for Republican partisans to do satellite interviews with
local stations around the country.
After the debate pundits and commentators weigh
form an integral part of post-debate coverage. Many media outlets
assemble groups of undecided voters to watch debates and then interview
participants for their
reactions. The media also fulfills its fact-checking role.
Several third party candidate debates typically occur. Although C-SPAN does cover some of these, they usually receive virtually no attention. Evan McMullin (I) sought without success to engage the Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson; Johnson, however, had been aiming for the big stage. One organization that has done work on third party debates is the Free and Equal Elections Foundation. Free and Equal organized the People's Presidential Debate, a two-hour forum at University of Colorado Boulder's Macky Auditorium on Oct. 25, 2016, but only three candidates participated: Darrell Castle (C), Rocky De La Fuente (I) and Gloria LaRiva (PSL). A more noteworthy forum brought Gary Johnson (L) and Jill Stein (G) together on The Tavis Smiley Show, taped live in Los Angeles on Oct. 31, 2016.
By comparision in 2012 there were several debates
involving the major third parties. Free and Equal organized two
debates. The first in Chicago on Oct. 23 brought together Gary
Goode, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson (+);
Johnson and Stein
advanced to the second, in Washington, DC on Nov. 5 (+).
Boca Raton, FL
Oct. 11, 2012
Oct. 2, 2008
St. Louis, MO
Coral Gables, FL
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2004
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2000
San Diego, CA
Oct. 9, 1996
St. Petersburg, FL
St. Louis, MO
|Oct. 19, 1992
East Lansing, MI
Oct. 13, 1992
Los Angeles, CA
Oct. 5, 1988
Kansas City, MO
Oct. 11, 1984
Sept. 21, 1980
Oct. 28, 1980
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 15, 1976
|Sept. 26, 1960||Oct. 7, 1960||Oct. 13, 1960||Oct. 21, 1960|