presidential debates are the mega-events of the fall campaign. Stakes
high as the candidates face each other, across a single stage, within a
month of the election, before a television audience of tens of millions
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 into an exchange of soundbites.
it comes to the number, timing and formats of the debates, as well as
will participate, there is a lot of discussion, but invariably the
party candidates and their campaigns have the final word.
campaign acts in its own best interest; it wants to create the most
possible set of circumstances for its candidate.
IN ACTION photo.
Bush makes a point during the second of three presidential debates,
at the Washington University in St. Louis.
The Commission on
The Commission on
Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, organized
the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 debates. Previous debates
sponsored by the League of Women Voters (1976, 1980, and 1984) and the
networks (1960). The CPD develops candidate selection criteria
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.
the Commission on Presidential Debates
On Jan. 6, 2003
the CPD posted
site selection criteria. There was a March 31, 2003 deadline
for prospective hosts; on April 24, 2003 CPD announced that it had
proposals from fourteen potential 2004 debate sites.
24, 2003 the CPD announced 2004
candidate selection criteria; it is using the same three criteria
6, 2003 the CPD announced proposed 2004 sites
17, 2004 the CPD announced formats
for its proposed 2004 debates.
15, 2004 the Kerry-Edwards campaign announced its acceptance of the
2004 debate schedule.
13, 2004 the CPD announced moderators
for its proposed 2004 debates.
20, 2004 James A Baker, III and Vernon Jordan, Jr, the campaigns'
negotiation team leaders, announced they have reached an agreement
for the candidates to hold three presidential debates and one vice
Sept. 30, 2004
Candidates at podiums. Focus primarily on foreign policy,
and Executive Editor, The NewsHour, PBS.
Western Reserve University
Candidates seated at a table with the moderator.
-Senior Correspondent, The NewsHour, and Moderator, Washington Week,
Oct. 8, 2004
Town meeting format in which "soft" supporters, selected by the Gallup
Organization, will question the candidates.
Gibson - Co-Anchor, ABC News Good Morning America.
Oct. 13, 2004
Candidates at podiums. Focus primarily on domestic policy.
-CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent, and Moderator, Face the
There is no
that presidential candidates participate in debates, but it would be
damaging to be seen as avoiding or blocking the debates, particularly
the candidates are taking federal funds. Typically every four
there is a ritual debate over debates. For several weeks the two
major campaigns jockey 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. Closed-doors
alternate with pointed public pronouncements, but eventually the two
reach an accord.
James A. Baker
partner, Baker Botts LLP (Houston))
of E&A Industries, Inc.)
director of Lazard LLC)
Governor Janet Napolitano
businessman and civic leader )
House press secretary)
In 2004, aside
from an early
report that the Bush campaign might skip the proposed St. Louis debate
and agree to only two presidential debates, as President Clinton had
in 1996, negotiations were conducted in quiet and without
Although the CPD did get a bit nervous (Sept.
15 letter) the negotiating teams announced on September 20
for three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, almost
exactly as the CPD had proposed. (One minor adjustment made,
at the behest of the Bush campaign, was to have the first debate focus
on foreign policy rather than domestic policy as the CPD had
In other changes from the CPD proposal, the September 30 and October 13
debates were held with the candidates at podiums rather than seated at
a table with the moderator, and the October 8 town hall featured
from "soft" supporters rather than undecided voters). In a
and unprecedented sign of openness, the campaigns released the full Memorandum
of Understanding [PDF] outlining the terms of the debates.
The format of a
a critical impact on nature of the exchanges that occur and on the
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
factors. Is there a live audience and are they controlled or
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
More recently the single moderator and town hall formats have come into
favor. The town hall format was first used in the Richmond, VA
in 1992. Having an audience of undecided voters pose the
likely results in a broader range of questions, but on the downside
format does not foster follow-up. One format which has not been
is to have the candidates question each other directly.
In the lead up to
the candidates undergo intensive preparations. Briefing books are
put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates. The
provide glimpses of these rehearsals. The candidates will also be sure
to be seen engaging in public displays of confidence such as throwing a
baseball, jogging, or giving a thumbs up.
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. Meanwhile, a rapid response
has been working feverishly to produce rebuttals to various claims made
during the debate; these documents are distributed and faxed out.
In 1988 media were
for giving too much attention to the spinners. Spin soundbites
form an integral part of coverage, but another common element is to
a group of undecided voters and interview them for their
As in 1996 and 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates ran a Debate
Watch program to encourage debate-watching groups around the
According to the Commission over the four debates more than 30,000
participated in an estimated 2,003 groups around the country.
groups provided convenient opportunities for local media to do
Controversy Over the CPD
Critics charge that
CPD, headed by the former chairs of the Democratic National Committee
the Republican National Committee, is a bipartisan rather than a
organization, and can scarcely be expected to be fair to third party
independent candidates. They also maintain the CPD lacks
be set as to who will appear on the debate stage, for with too many
these events will become unmanageable. In past cycles, the CPD
a complicated set of "objective criteria" that drew much
The commission's 2004 criteria, announced on Sept. 24, 2003, are the
as those used in 2000. To participate in the debates, candidates have
raised strong objections to the 15 % threshhold, arguing that it is
and too high. In the 2000 cycle, Pat Buchanan/Reform Party, Dr.
Fulani's Committee for a Unified Independent Party, John
Law Party, and Ralph Nader all filed lawsuits seeking to gain entry
the debates, all to no avail (see the 2000
(b) have ballot
enough states to win a majority of electoral votes (at least 270);
(c) have a level
support of at least 15 % as measured in polls done by five selected
parties filed an administrative complaint
with the FEC on June 17, 2003 charging that the CPD is a partisan group
and that therefore cannot finance the debates with corporate
This complaint would not be resolved until long after the debates and
election. After the FEC failed to act in a timely manner,
filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on
11, 2004. (press
release). On Aug. 12, 2004 U.S. District Judge Henry H.
Jr. ruled (Hagelin
et al. v FEC) that the Federal Election Commission had to
the charge that the CPD is a partisan group. The FEC filed a
to stay the decision pending appeal. The District Court granted
motion on Oct. 6. The matter then went to the U.S. Court of
for the District of Columbia, which on June 10, 2005 issued a ruling
siding with the FEC and reversing the District Court ruling.
for Hagelin et al. did not give up; they asked the Appeals Court to
its decision, but on Aug. 9, 2005 the Court reissued its opinion,
ending the matter.
Meanwhile on Oct.
the Arizona Libertarian Party filed suit against Arizona State
and the CPD in the Superior Court of Arizona for Maricopa County
that ASU, a state entity, was "making a donation to two individual
[Bush and Kerry] through the Commission on Presidential Debates as a
in violation of the Arizona Constitution's prohibition on making gifts
or donations to individuals or corporations." Judge Pendleton
issued an Order to Show Cause for the president of ASU and the director
of the CPD to appear in court for a hearing on October 12, one day
the scheduled debate. The Arizona debate nonetheless
At the debate in St. Louis on Oct. 8, Libertarian nominee Michael
and Green nominee David Cobb were arrested as they crossed a police
Citizens Debate Commission
Debates is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit "committed to reforming the
debate process." Open Debates traces back to Ralph Nader's call
a People's Presidential
Commission (2/18/02). Founder George Farah has worked at
Center for the Study of Responsive Law and authored a book, No
(Seven Stories Press, April 2004). Open Debates established a
Debate Commission in an effort to replace the CPD. The Citizens
Commission proposed five presidential debates and one vice presidential
debate, what it terms "real and transparent"
presidential debates as opposed to "stilted and deceptive events
by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)."
16, 2004 letter)
by the Citizens Debate Commission
22, 2004 - Capital University, in Columbus, OH
28, 2004 - Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA
3, 2004 - Canisius College, in Buffalo, NY
7, 2004 - Willamette University, in Salem, OR (vice-presidential)
11, 2004 - Carleton College, in Northfield, MN
15, 2004 - Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, FL
2004 Open Debates filed a complaint with the FEC alleging "that
debates sponsored by the CPD are controlled by the major parties in
of FEC debate regulations." The Open Debates complaint sought to
have "the FEC prohibit the CPD from staging future corporate-sponsored
presidential debates." And on April 2004 Open Debates filed a
with the IRS in an attempt to revoke the tax status of the Commission
Presidential Debates (CPD).
In a March 13,
in Quincy, Illinois, presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Kerry proposed
"a series of monthly debates, starting this spring." (During his
1996 re-election campaign Kerry had held a series of eight debates with
his Republican challenger Bill Weld from April to October).
In the past
there have been
unsuccessful attempts by a few members of Congress to legislate the
of participation. For example in Nov. 2001, Rep. Jesse Jackson
(D-IL) introduced a resolution that sought to lower the threshhold for
participation to 5 % (H.C.R.
Third Party Debates
Voters who want to
party presidential candidates in debates have thus far had to rely on
In 2004 there were half a dozen debates involving third party
or vice presidential candidates:
Note: Brown is Walt
Socialist Party candidate; Jay is Charles Jay, candidate of the
Choice Party; stand-ins were Gary Nolan (LP), Jerry White (SEP) and
Church, New York, NY (during Rep. Nat'l Conv.)
Inn, Coral Gables,
Brown, Cobb, Peroutka
||East Tenn. State
Univ., Johnson City, TN
Cobb, Jay reps. of
LP, SEP, and WWP (see note)
Green Party nominee
Cobb assidiously participated in these forums, Libertarian Party
Michael Badnarik missed one, Constitution Party Michael Peroutka did
one forum, and Ralph Nader eschewed them altogether. C-SPAN
a couple of these events.
Dates and Locations of
and Vice Presidential Debates
|Oct. 3, 2000
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2000
San Diego, CA
Oct. 9, 1996
|Oct. 11, 1992
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 13, 1992
Los Angeles, CA
Oct. 5, 1988
|Oct. 7, 1984
Kansas City, MO
Oct. 11, 1984
Sept. 21, 1980
Oct. 28, 1980
|Sept. 23, 1976
Oct. 15, 1976
Note: 2000, 1996,
1988 debates sponsored by Commission on Presidential Debates; 1984,
and 1976 sponsored by the League of Women Voters; 1960 sponsored by the
2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.