on Presidential Debates
For Primary Debates Go: Here
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, the major party candidates and their campaigns have
final word. Each campaign acts in its own best interest; it wants
to create the most favorable possible set of circumstances for its
The Commission on Presidential Debates
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, organized the 1988, 1992 and 1996 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.
On January 6,
2000 the CPD
announced its candidate selection criteria and proposed dates and
for three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.
After the national conventions in August, the Gore and Bush campaigns
in ritualistic haggling before agreeing to the CPD schedule on
14, 2000. Three presidential and one vice presidential debate
in the 14-day period between October 3 and October 17, 2000. (The
earliest date a presidential debate has been held was Sept. 21 in 1980
and the latest was on Oct. 28, also in 1980).
Controversy over Candidate Selection Criteria
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.1 The commission's criteria announced on Jan. 6, 2000 are considerably streamlined but are still open to criticism. To participate in the debates, candidates must:
(a) be constitutionally eligible;Third party candidates have raised strong objections to the 15 % threshhold, arguing that it is arbitrary and too high. They point out 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. Pat Buchanan, Dr. Lenora Fulani's Committee for a Unified Independent Party, and Ralph Nader have all filed lawsuits seeking to gain entry into the debates.
out that in the recent Mexican presidential election, the debates
six candidates and the Mexican people were able to handle it. He
also notes that the polls to be used by the CPD have different sample
ask different questions, and have significant margins of error so that
it does not make sense to average them. Further, Buchanan states,
the appropriate question is not "Who do you want to see as president of
the United States?" but "Who do you want to see in the debates?"
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. There is no requirement that presidential candidates participate in debates, but it would be quite damaging to be seen as blocking the debates, particularly since the candidates are taking federal funds.
The year 2000 was no different. With the conventions over, the major party campaigns turned their focus to the debates. The debate over debates began on September 3 when Gov. Bush put a proposal on the table that entailed a total of five debates: a debate on a special edition of "Meet the Press" moderated by Tim Russert (Sept. 12), a debate on "Larry King Live" (Oct. 3), two vice presidential debates and a CPD sponsored debate at Washington University in St. Louis (Oct. 17). The Bush proposal did not fly, however, and Bush was portrayed as trying to duck debates. Finally on September 14 the two sides met and agreed to the CPD schedule; negotiations on format continued through September 16. The contract, at 31 pages including the signature page, had 16 sections and covered everything from camera angles and room temperature to format.
Each campaign had
team to handle debate negotiations. Negotiating for Bush-Cheney
campaign manager Joe Allbaugh and Andy Card, who chaired the Republican
National Convention; the Gore-Lieberman team consisted of campaign
William Daley, former Fannie Mae chairman and CEO Jim Johnson, and
of Labor Alexis Herman.
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
debates exclusively used the panel of reporters. More recently the
moderator and town hall formats have come into favor. The town hall
was first used in the Richmond, VA debate in 1992. Having an audience
undecided voters pose the questions likely results in a broader range
questions, but on the downside this format does not foster
One format which has not been attempted is to have the candidates
each other directly.
In the lead up to
the candidates undergo intensive preparations. Briefing books are put
and the candidates engage in mock debates. The media provide glimpses
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 politics. Top
campaign staff, campaign surrogates and party leaders gather in the
filing center and spin reporters, telling them what they have just
On opposite sides of the filing center chairs are set up for Democratic
and for Republican partisans to do satellite interviews with local
around the country. Meanwhile, a rapid response unit has been working
to produce rebuttals to various claims made during the debate; these
are distributed and faxed out.
In 1988 media
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
In 1996 and again in 2000 the Commission on Presidential Debates' Debate
Watch program organized debate-watching groups around the country,
providing convenient opportunities for local media to do this type of
Third Party Debates
Voters who want
to see third
party presidential candidates in debates have thus far had to rely on
In 2000, two third party presidential debates and one vice-presidential
debate occurred involving the Libertarian, Constitution and Natural Law
Party candidates; Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader declined to
These forums received virtually no coverage other than that provided by
Sept. 14 Representatives of the Bush and Gore campaigns meet and agree to the schedule proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Sept. 13 -Not in the script!- Reports surface that Gore advisor Tom Downey received a package containing a stolen video of Bush prepping for the debate and documents. Downey turned the materials over to the FBI. Maverick Media employee Yvette Lozano was indicted in the case in March 2001 and pleaded guilty to mail fraud and perjury on June 14, 2001.
Sept. 8 Don Evans, chairman of the Bush campaign, accepts the Commission on Presidential Debates' invitation to meet; meeting planned for week of Sept. 11-15.
Sept. 4 Gore/Lieberman Statement by William M. Daley... "Gore Campaign Agrees To Meet With Commission on Presidential Debates."
Sept. 3 CPD reiterates its proposal and invites representatives of the Bush and Gore campaigns to a meeting.
Sept. 3 Bush-Cheney "Statement by Ari Fleischer on Al Gore's Attempt to Back Out of Debates He's Already Accepted."
Sept. 3 Gore/Lieberman Statement by William M. Daley... "We Reject George Bush's plan to shortchange Americans..."
Sept. 3 Bush-Cheney Press Conference/News Release... "Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney Announce Schedule for Modern Day Record Number of Debates."
Aug. 29 Gore/Lieberman News Release... "Gore Formally Endorses Proposal By Commission On Presidential Debates -- Meanwhile, Bush Balks."
Aug. 17 Bush-Cheney News Release... "Bush-Cheney To Participate In Record Five Debates."
Efforts to Open the Debates Through Changes in Regulations / the Courts3
Third party candidates went to the FEC and the courts in an effort to gain entry into the debates. They used several lines of attack. For example, FECA states that "[i]t is unlawful...for any corporation whatever...to make a contribution or expenditure in connection with any election" for the office of President, Vice-President, Senator or Member of Congress."[2 U.S.C sec. 441b(a)] The CPD-sponsored debates involve corporate contributions. FECA does allow an exemption for "nonpartisan activity designed to encourage individuals to vote or to register to vote."[2 U.S.C sec. 431(9)(B)(ii)] However, the CPD is a bipartisan rather than a nonpartisan entity. Thus, one major thrust of current lawsuits on the presidential debates is to charge that the FEC's debate regulations[C.F.R. secs. 110.13 and 114.4(f)]are illegal (in excess of the statutory authority granted the FEC under the Federal Election Campaign Act). Note that two of the cases actually began as administrative complaints filed with the FEC.Lawsuit filed by the Natural Law Party and Dr. John Hagelin against the FEC
This suit began on April 24, 2000 as an administrative complaint filed with the FEC (designated MUR 5004); the FEC dismissed the complaint in July 2000. The Natural Law Party et el. filed the suit on Sept. 6, 2000 in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, where it was assigned to Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. On Nov. 21, 2000 the two sides agreed to dismiss the case.
Full Text of Lawsuit
Lawsuit filed by the Nader
et al. against the FEC
Lawsuit filed by Committee for
Independent Party et al. against the FEC
Lawsuit filed by Buchanan
the Reform Party against the FEC
Petition for Rulemaking on
Debates (May 1999)
Legislative Proposals on
Other Debate Proposals
Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.
|1. The 15 %
the old CPD criteria which stated that a candidate "must have a
(i.e. more than theoretical) chance of being elected the next President
of the United States." The commission had a set of "objective"
that it used to determine whether a candidate met this realistic
standard. Critics challenged the standard and the commission's
In 1996 the CPD determined that Ross Perot and other third party candidates did not meet the realistic chance standard. Perot filed suit charging that, "The decision-making of the CPD is not independent, but is heavily influenced, if not totally dictated by the political interests and calculations of major party candidates and major party national committees." The suit charged the CPD "automatically certified the Democratic and Republican nominees and then forced all others to run a gauntlet of subjective and arbitrary criteria."
raised fundamental questions about our democracy, prompting efforts to
adjust the candidate selection criteria through legislation, through
and in the courts. For example, bills have been introduced in Congress
that would require general election candidates receiving federal
to participate in debates. (If this standard had been used in
the debates would have had Clinton, Dole and Perot).
Neustadt, who chaired the CPD's advisory committee through the 1996
has noted that the commission is "still a weak organism" and has not
a state where it can dictate to the candidates. Thus commission puts
proposal on the table and the Democratic and Republican presidential
then do what they want to. At one point, assessing the 1996
CPD co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf suggested that in 2000, with no incumbent
running, the commission may have an opportunity to be more forceful. In
2000, Fahrenkopf said, the commission will issue a set of dates and
a draft agreement or contract. "We're going to force it down their
3. Another debates-related lawsuit resulted from the heavy-handed exclusion of Ralph Nader from the UMass campus during the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, 2000. On Oct. 17, 2000 Ralph Nader filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston charging that the Commission on Presidential Debates and other parties had unlawfully kept him off the UMass campus. Nader had a ticket for an auxilliary event in Science Auditorium and a scheduled interview with Fox News. Nader's counsel, Boston attorney Howard Friedman, said the authorities had excluded the Green Party candidate "because of who he was," thereby violating his First Amendment and Equal Protection rights under the U.S. Constitution. On Feb. 8, 2001 Judge William G. Young denied the commission's motion to dismiss, and the case is expected to go to trial in early 2002.