|Commission on Presidential
For Primary Debates Go: Here
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.
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.
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;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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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'
Watch program organized debate-watching groups
around the country, providing convenient opportunities
for local media to do this type of coverage.
Third Party Debates
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.
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 2000 Campaign et al. against the FEC
Lawsuit filed by
Committee for a Unified Independent Party et al.
against the FEC
Lawsuit filed by Buchanan
Reform and the Reform Party against the FEC
Petition for Rulemaking
on Presidential Debates (May
on Presidential Debates
Other Debate Proposals
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."
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
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.