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Commission on Presidential Debates
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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, 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.
Debates Organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates
First Presidential Debate
Clark Athletic Center
University of Massachusetts Boston Boston, MA
Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000 
9:00 -10:30 pm EDT
Format: Candidates standing at podiums -- 2 min. response followed by 1 min. reply with moderator having discretion to extend discussion.  Moderator: Jim Lehrer.  Est. Viewership: 46.6 million
Vice Presidential Debate
Norton Center for the Arts
Centre College
Danville, KY
Thursday, Oct. 5, 2000
9:00 -10:30 pm EDT
Format: Candidates seated with  moderator -- 2 min. response by each candidate with moderator having discretion to extend discussion.  Moderator: Bernard Shaw.  Est. Viewership: 28.5 million
Second Presidential Debate
Wait Chapel
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC
Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000
9:00 -10:30 pm EDT
Format: Candidates seated with  moderator -- 2 min. response by each candidate with moderator having discretion to extend discussion.  Moderator: Jim Lehrer.  Est. Viewership: 37.5 million
Third Presidential Debate

Field House
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, MO
Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000
9:00 -10:30 pm EDT
Format: Town meeting -- 2 min. response by each candidate with moderator having discretion to extend discussion.  Moderator: Jim Lehrer. Est. Viewership: 37.7 million
Note: Extimated viewership numbers are the Nielsen numbers.  By comparison, in 1996 an estimated 46.1 million persons watched the first Clinton-Dole debate on Oct. 6, 26.6 million watched the Gore-Kemp debate on Oct. 9 (lowest rated vice presidential debate), and 36.3 million watched the second Clinton-Dole debate on Oct.  16 (lowest rated presidential debate).
Other Debates
The 3rd Party 
Presidential Debate

Independence Party of Minnesota

Roy Wilkins Ballroom
St. Paul, MN
Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000
7:00-9:00 pm Central
Harry Browne
John Hagelin
Howard Phillips
Moderator: Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Tickets: $20 for main floor seating
"How Will We Restore Government Ethics in America?"  A Decision 2000 Presidential Debate
Judicial Watch
Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, DC 
Friday, Oct. 20, 2000
8:00 pm EDT
Harry Browne
John Hagelin
Howard Phillips
Format: Questions from panel of journalists.  Moderator: Jim Bohannon.
Third Party Vice Presidential Debate

American University Department of History and Commission on Fair Elections

National Press Club
Washington, DC
Friday, Nov. 3, 2000
2:00 - 3:30 pm EDT
Nat Goldhaber
Dr. J. Curtis Frazier
Art Olivier
Moderator: Prof. Allan J. Lichtman

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 locations for three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.  After the national conventions in August, the Gore and Bush campaigns engaged in ritualistic haggling before agreeing to the CPD schedule on September 14, 2000.  Three presidential and one vice presidential debate occurred 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;
(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 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.

Buchanan, for example, points out that in the recent Mexican presidential election, the debates involved 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 sizes, 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 a high-powered team to handle debate negotiations.  Negotiating for Bush-Cheney were campaign manager Joe Allbaugh and Andy Card, who chaired the Republican National Convention; the Gore-Lieberman team consisted of campaign chairman William Daley, former Fannie Mae chairman and CEO Jim Johnson, and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. 


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.
Boston Spin


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.  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 coverage.

Third Party Debates

Voters who want to see third party presidential candidates in debates have thus far had to rely on C-SPAN.  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 participate.  These forums received virtually no coverage other than that provided by C-SPAN.

Setting the Stage
The Ritual Dance
Sept. 15-16  Representatives of the Bush and Gore campaigns continue negotiations over format, finally reaching an accord on Sept. 16.

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."

Jan. 6      Commission on Presidential Debates Proposes Dates and Locations for Debates.
Dates and Locations of Past Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates
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

    Note: 1996, 1992 and 1988 debates sponsored by Commission on Presidential Debates; 1984, 1980 and 1976 sponsored by the League of Women Voters; 1960 sponsored by the networks.

Other Ideas
Debate This!
Boston Mobilization -- o3
Coalition for Opening the Debates [Vice Presidential Debate in Danville]
o17 [Third Presidential Debate in St. Louis]

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 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 2000 Campaign et al. against the FEC
 Becker v. FEC - filed June 19, 2000 in the U.S. District Court of the District of Massachusetts; oral arguments heard Aug. 2000 in Boston by U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris; on Sept. 1, 2000 the court ruled Nader and the plaintiffs had standing but denied their request for a preliminary injunction.  Nader's lawyers filed a notice of appeal on Sept. 15, 2000, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit granted the motion on Sept. 26, 2000.  An expedited hearing occurred before a three-judge panel on Oct. 5, 2000; the court dismissed Nader's appeal on Nov. 1, 2000.  On Jan. 31, 2001 Nader filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court; the court  declined to take up the case on April 30, 2001.
Fact Sheet | Full Text of Lawsuit | Full Text of Court of Appeals' Decision (Nov. 1, 2000)

Lawsuit filed by Committee for a Unified Independent Party et al. against the FEC
 Filed May 2000 in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York; amended June 21, 2000.  The judge in the case was Barbara S. Jones.  CUIP submitted papers and request for oral argument on Aug. 15, 2000; Magistrate Judge James C. Francis, IV heard oral argument on Oct. 24, 2000 and issued a report and recommendation on Dec. 11, 2000. 
Overview | Full Text of Lawsuit | Full Text of Francis' Report and Recommendation (Dec. 11, 2000) (PDF)

Lawsuit filed by Buchanan Reform and the Reform Party against the FEC
 This suit began on March 20, 2000 as an administrative complaint filed with the FEC by Buchanan Reform and the Reform Party against the CPD (designated MUR 4987).  When the FEC refused to act on the complaint, the Buchanan campaign took the matter to court; the suit was filed July 25, 2000 in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.  A hearing occurred on Sept. 6, 2000 before Judge Richard W. Roberts; on Sept. 15, 2000 the judge ruled that he would not instruct the FEC to include Buchanan in the debates.  The campaign quickly appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, seeking expedited consideration on the point that Buchanan, as a federally funded candidate, had a right to be in the debates.  The action came to an end on Nov. 30, 2000, when Buchanan et al. moved to dismiss the appeal.
Summary | Full Complaint | Full Text of Judge Roberts Decision (Sept. 15, 2000) (PDF)

Petition for Rulemaking on Presidential Debates (May 1999)
 Mary Clare Wohlford, William T. Wohlford and Martin T. Mortimer petitioned the Federal Election Commission to amend its rules so that the FEC, not a debate staging organization, determines the "objective criteria" for inclusion in debates: Petition.
[The FEC took public comment from June 10 to July 26, 1999 and received approximately 1,300 comments that filled four 2" binders.  However, on Feb. 17, 2000, the FEC voted to "hold the Petition for Rulemaking in abeyance until after the 2000 general election."]

Legislative Proposals on Presidential Debates
106th Congress
H.R. 2461 (Traficant) Seeks to force debate staging organizations to include candidates who qualify for the ballot in states with at least 270 electoral votes, using the tax code. [identical to H.R. 4310, the bill Traficant introduced in the 105th].
H.R. 2027 (Paul) Seeks to broaden debates so they would include candidates who qualify for the ballot in at least 40 states, using campaign financing as a lever. [identical to H.R. 2478, the bill Paul introduced in the 105th].
H.R. 178 (McCollum) Would establish a three-member Presidential Debate Commission, members appointed by the President.
H.Con.Res. 373 (Jackson) Would establish as the sense of Congress that presidential candidates should be allowed to participate in debates if they achieve support of 5 percent of eligible voters in national polls or if the majority of those polled support a candidate's participation in the debates.

105th Congress
H.R. 4310 (Traficant) Sought to force debate staging organizations to include candidates who qualify for the ballot in states with at least 270 electoral votes, using the tax code.
H.R. 2478 (Paul) Sought to broaden debates so they would include candidates who qualify for the ballot in at least 40 states, using campaign financing as a lever.

Other Debate Proposals
Ralph Nader Calls on the Networks to Sponsor Debates (Sept. 6, 2000)
Judicial Watch--How to Restore Ethics to Government, Oct. 20, 2000 (Aug. 21, 2000)
Children's Scholarship Fund (June 14, 2000)
Youth Vote 2000 (Jan. 12, 2000)
The Freeport Challenge
Western Governors' Association--Resolution: Presidential Debate in the West (Feb. 29, 2000)

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.


1. The 15 % threshhold replaces the old CPD criteria which stated that a candidate "must have a realistic (i.e. more than theoretical) chance of being elected the next President of the United States."  The commission had a set of "objective" criteria that it used to determine whether a candidate met this realistic chance standard.  Critics challenged the standard and the commission's objectivity. 

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."

The realistic chance standard raised fundamental questions about our democracy, prompting efforts to adjust the candidate selection criteria through legislation, through rulemaking, and in the courts. For example, bills have been introduced in Congress that would require general election candidates receiving federal payments to participate in debates.  (If this standard had been used in 1996, the debates would have had Clinton, Dole and Perot).

2. Harvard Professor Richard Neustadt, who chaired the CPD's advisory committee through the 1996 campaign, has noted that the commission is "still a weak organism" and has not reached a state where it can dictate to the candidates. Thus commission puts its proposal on the table and the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns then do what they want to.  At one point, assessing the 1996 experience, 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 throats," Fahrenkopf said.

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.