The televised presidential debates are the mega-events of the fall campaign.  Stakes are 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 ability to think on their feet or it can devolve into a scripted exercise bordering on a joint press conference or into an exchange of soundbites.  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.  Each campaign acts in its own best interest; it wants to create the most favorable possible set of circumstances for its candidate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, organized the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 debates.  Previous debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters (1976, 1980, and 1984) and the networks (1960).  The CPD develops candidate selection criteria which are used to evaluate which candidates it will invite to participate.  It proposes dates and locations of debates.  It lines up corporate sponsors and oversees preparations for these important events.
  In Nov. 2007 the CPD proposed four 90-minute debates in the Fall of 2008.  In an Aug. 2, 2008 letter Obama campaign manager David Plouffe accepted the CPD proposal.  The Obama and McCain campaigns negotiated, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) for Obama and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for McCain, and on Aug. 21, 2008 issued a joint statement accepting four debates as outlined in the CPD proposal.  (There was one difference--the original CPD proposal envisaged the first debate, at the University of Mississippi would be on domestic policy and the last debate at Hofstra University would be on foreign policy; the campaigns reversed it so the foreign policy debate would be first).  On Sept. 21, 2008 the CPD announced the finalized formats, describing them as "historic."  Each debate began at 9:00 p.m. EDT. 

  First presidential debate
Friday, September 26

Audience: 52.4 million viewers (36.2 million households).

University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS
[foreign policy]
Moderator: Jim Lehrer - Executive Editor and Anchor, The NewsHour, PBS

Vice presidential debate
Thursday, October 2

Audience: 69.9 million viewers (47.8 million households).
Washington University in St. Louis, MO
Moderator: Gwen Ifill - Senior Correspondent, The NewsHour, and Moderator and Managing Editor, Washington Week, PBS

Second presidential debate
Tuesday, October 7

63.2 million viewers (44.4 million households).
Belmont University, Nashville, TN
[town meeting format]
Moderator: Tom Brokaw - Special Correspondent, NBC News

Third presidential debate
Wednesday, October 15

56.5 million viewers (40.0 million households).
Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY
[domestic policy]
Moderator: Bob Schieffer - CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent, and Host, Face the Nation

Despite the "historic" formats and the best efforts of the moderators, direct exchanges between the candidates were rare and the presidential debates remained somewhat stilted affairs.  Major issues such as immigration were not addressed.  The vice presidential debate, held on Oct. 2, 2008 garnered the largest audience of the four debates.

Other Proposals
New Orleans leaders, Google, and YouTube proposed a two-hour forum at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on September 18: America's Presidential Debate in New Orleans.

It wasn't a debate, but it did happen and it was instructive; Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain made back to back appearances and fielded the same questions at Pastor Rick Williams' forum on August 16 in Lake Forest, CA: Saddleback Civil Forum on National Leadership.

A group of nonprofit organizations proposed the Fort Hood Presidential Town Hall focused on military and veterans to be held on August 11, 2008 in Belton, TX, but Sen. Obama declined.

In June 2008 presumptive Republican nominee Sen. McCain proposed a series of weekly town hall meetings in advance of the national conventions but the presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Obama declined: McCain Town Hall Meetings proposal.

Controversy Over the CPD
Critics charge that the CPD, headed by the former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, is a bipartisan rather than a nonpartisan organization, and can scarcely be expected to be fair to third party and independent candidates.  They also maintain the CPD lacks transparency.

Clearly some limits must be set as to who will appear on the debate stage, for with too many candidates these events will become unmanageable.  In past cycles, the CPD used a complicated set of "objective criteria" that drew much criticism.  In 2000 and 2004 the commission used simpler criteria.  To participate in the debates, candidates had to:

(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 have raised strong objections to their exclusion from the debates.  They argue that the 15 % threshhold is arbitrary and too high.  In addition to legal actions,2 there have been unsuccessful attempts by a few members of Congress to legislate the question of participation.  For example in Nov. 2001, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced a resolution that sought to lower the threshhold for participation to 5 % (H.C.R. 263).

In 2004, Open Debates, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit "committed to reforming the presidential 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 "stilted and deceptive events proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)."   (August 16, 2004 letter)  Open Debates traces back to Ralph Nader's call for a People's Presidential Debate Commission (2/18/02).  Founder George Farah has worked at Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law and authored a book, No Debate (Seven Stories Press, April 2004).  Nothing came of the Open Debates proposal.

Open Debates took several other actions.  On Feb. 14, 2004 Open Debates filed a complaint with the FEC alleging "that presidential debates sponsored by the CPD are controlled by the major parties in violation 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 complaint with the IRS in an attempt to revoke the tax status of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 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..."

"I commend to you the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential debate agreements which run 53 pages apiece.  They are bizarre examples of lunacy.  No serious adult should agree to them.  They're childish.  You don't elect a president to memorize.  You elect a president to have wisdom, to have serious thought, to reflect."  -Newt Gingrich

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 are taking federal funds.  Typically every four years there is a ritual debate over debates.  For several weeks the two major campaigns jockey back and forth haggling over details big and small--everything from the number and format of the debates to the podium height and shape and who is or is not acceptable as a moderator.  Closed-doors meetings alternate with pointed public pronouncements, but eventually the two sides reach an accord.  In 2008 the Obama and McCain campaigns reached an agreement quickly and without posturing.  They did not, however, release the full Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] as happened in 2004.

The format of a debate has a critical impact on nature of the exchanges that 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.

In the lead up to the debates, the candidates undergo intensive preparations.  Briefing books are put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates.  The media 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.

Following each debate occurs one of the most unique and fascinating scenes in American politics.  Top campaign staff, campaign surrogates and party leaders gather in the media filing center and spin reporters, telling them what they have just seen.  On opposite sides of the filing center chairs are set up for Democratic and for Republican partisans to do satellite interviews with local stations around the country.  Meanwhile, a rapid response unit 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 criticized for giving too much attention to the spinners.  Spin soundbites still form an integral part of coverage, but another common element is to assemble a group of undecided voters and interview them for their reactions.  Starting in 1996, the Commission on Presidential Debates has run a Debate Watch program to encourage debate-watching groups around the country.  According to the Commission in 2004 over the four debates more than 30,000 people participated in an estimated 2,003 groups around the country.  These groups provided convenient opportunities for local media to do debate coverage.

Third Party Debates
Several third party candidate debates occurred.  An Alternative Presidential Candidates' Debate organized by the Coalition for October Debate Alternatives (CODA), the Nashville Peace Coalition, and Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence, took place on Oct. 6, 2008 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN; Frank McNulty (New American Independent Party), Brad Lyttle (U.S. Pacifist Party), Charles Jay (Boston Tea Party), Gloria LaRiva (Party for Socialism and Liberation), Darrell Castle (Constitution Party) and Brian Moore (Socialist Party) participated in the 2 1/2 hour event moderated by Bruce Barry, a professor at the Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt.

An Independent/Third Party Presidential Debate organized by Free & Equal Elections occurred on Oct. 23, 2008 at Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC; however only Ralph Nader (Independent) and Chuck Baldwin (Constitution Party) participated in the forum moderated by Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter who is now a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. 

On Oct. 30, 2008 The City Club of Cleveland hosted a debate on "The Economy: Where do we go from here?"  Ralph Nader (Independent), Robert Barr (Libertarian Party), and Chuck Baldwin (Constitution Party) participated in the event moderated by ideastream's Dan Moulthrop.  (Cynthia McKinney (Green Party) was in Huntsville, TX protesting the death penalty and sought to participate by a remote connection to no avail).

Free & Equal Elections sponsored a Third Party Vice-Presidential Debate between Matt Gonzalez (Independent), Wayne Allyn Root (Libertarian Party), and Darrell Castle (Constitution Party) in the Marietta Tiberti Grand Hall at UNLV in Las Vegas, NV on Nov. 2, 2008. >

Dates and Locations of Past Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates
Sept. 30, 2004
Coral Gables, FL
Oct. 8, 2004
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 13, 2004
Tempe, AZ
Cleveland, OH
Oct. 5, 2004
Oct. 3, 2000
Boston, MA
Oct. 11, 2000
Winston-Salem, NC
Oct. 17, 2000
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2000
Danville, KY
Oct. 6, 1996
Hartford, CT
Oct. 16, 1996
San Diego, CA
. Gore-Kemp
Oct. 9, 1996
St. Petersburg, FL
Oct. 11, 1992
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 15, 1992
Richmond, VA
Oct. 19, 1992
East Lansing, MI 
Oct. 13, 1992
Atlanta, GA
Sept. 25, 1988
Winston-Salem, NC
Oct. 13, 1988
Los Angeles, CA
. Quayle-Bentsen
Oct. 5, 1988
Omaha, NE
Oct. 7, 1984
Louisville, KY
Oct. 21, 1984
Kansas City, MO
. Bush-Ferraro
Oct. 11, 1984
Philadelphia, PA
Sept. 21, 1980
Baltimore, MD
Oct. 28, 1980
Cleveland, OH
. none
Sept. 23, 1976
Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 6, 1976
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 22, 1976
Williamsburg, VA
Oct. 15, 1976
Houston, TX
Sept. 26, 1960 Oct. 7, 1960 Oct. 13, 1960 Oct. 21, 1960


1. CPD milestones in planning debates for the 2008 cycle:

January 2, 2007 2008 Site Selection Guidelines and Application Information [PDF] issued
March 31, 2007 Due date for proposals.  (19 applicants)
April-June 2007 Site surveys scheduled and conducted by CPD production staff
June-September 2007 Review of proposals and site surveys
November 19, 2007 CPD announces 2008 sites, dates, format and candidate selection criteria

and for the 2004 cycle:

  • On Jan. 6, 2003 the CPD posted 2004 site selection criteria.  There was a March 31, 2003 deadline for prospective hosts; on April 24, 2003 CPD announced that it had received proposals from fourteen potential 2004 debate sites.
  • On Sept. 24, 2003 the CPD announced 2004 candidate selection criteria (the same three criteria as in 2000).
  • On Nov. 6, 2003 the CPD announced proposed 2004 sites and dates.
  • On June 17, 2004 the CPD announced formats for its proposed 2004 debates.
  • On July 15, 2004 the Kerry-Edwards campaign announced its acceptance of the CPD's 2004 debate schedule.
  • On Aug. 13, 2004 the CPD announced moderators for its proposed 2004 debates.
  • On Sept. 20, 2004 James A Baker, III and Vernon Jordan, Jr, the campaigns' debate negotiation team leaders, announced they have reached an agreement for the candidates to hold three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

    2. In the 2000 cycle, Pat Buchanan/Reform Party, Dr. Lenora Fulani's Committee for a Unified Independent Party, John Hagelin/Natural Law Party, and Ralph Nader all filed lawsuits seeking to gain entry into the debates, all to no avail (see the 2000 debates page).

    In the 2004 cycle there was likewise considerable legal activity.  Third party candidates and 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 funds.  This complaint would not be resolved until long after the debates and the election.  After the FEC failed to act in a timely manner, attorneys filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Feb. 11, 2004. (press release).  On Aug. 12, 2004 U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. ruled (Hagelin et al. v FEC) that the Federal Election Commission had to investigate the charge that the CPD is a partisan group.  The FEC filed a motion to stay the decision pending appeal.  The District Court granted this motion on Oct. 6.  The matter then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which on June 10, 2005 issued a ruling siding with the FEC and reversing the District Court ruling.  Attorneys for Hagelin et al. did not give up; they asked the Appeals Court to reconsider its decision, but on Aug. 9, 2005 the Court reissued its opinion, effectively ending the matter.

    Meanwhile on Oct. 1, 2004 the Arizona Libertarian Party filed suit against Arizona State University and the CPD in the Superior Court of Arizona for Maricopa County charging that ASU, a state entity, was "making a donation to two individual campaigns [Bush and Kerry] through the Commission on Presidential Debates as a conduit, in violation of the Arizona Constitution's prohibition on making gifts or donations to individuals or corporations."  Judge Pendleton Gaines 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 before the scheduled debate.  The Arizona debate nonetheless proceeded.  At the debate in St. Louis on Oct. 8, Libertarian nominee Michael Badnarik and Green nominee David Cobb were arrested as they crossed a police line.

    Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action