presidential debates are the mega-events of the fall campaign.
are high as the candidates face each other, across a single stage,
a month of the election, before a television audience of tens of
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 an exchange of
The Commission on Presidential Debates
The Commission on
Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, has
organized all general election debates since 1988 (six election cycles
now). 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.1 The CPD
debates have become very well established and although
organizations have put forth proposals for debates, none have come to
fruition. The proposed schedule of CPD debates was announced on
Oct. 31, 2011, details of the format were announced on
July 25, 2012 and the moderators were announced on
Aug. 13, 2012 (+).
||Wed. Oct. 3, 2012
||University of Denver, Denver, CO
||Thurs, Oct. 11, 2012
||Tues. Oct. 16, 2012
||Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY
||Mon. Oct. 22, 2012
Boca Raton, FL
Twelve venues sought to
host a 2012 debate. The back-up site is Washington University in
St. Louis, MO.
Each cycle the CPD tweaks its formats to try to improve the debates;
example the 2008 formats
featured looser time constraints. However, despite the best
efforts of the
exchanges between Obama and McCain were rare and the presidential
debates remained somewhat
stilted affairs. Additionally, major issues such as immigration
addressed. For the 2012 debates, seeking to focus more time on
big issues, the CPD is trying a new format in which the first and last
debates are divided into six approximately 15-minute long segments or
While derided by some as essentially exchanges of talking points,
the debates are seen as crucial to the candidates'
success. Most observers viewed President Obama's flat performance
in the first presidential debate as a turning point in the
campaign. The audiences for these mega-events are in the tens of
millions. According to Nielsen, he first presidential debate in
Denver drew an estimated audience of 67.2 million, the vice
in Danville drew 51.4 million, the second presidential debate
in Hempstead 65.6 million, and the third presidential debate in Boca
Raton 59.2 million.
(Audiences for the 2008 presidential debates ranged
from 52.4 million to 63.2 million; the vice presidential debate, held
on Oct. 2, 2008
garnered the largest audience of the four debates, a reported 69.9
Critics charge that the CPD is a bipartisan rather than a nonpartisan organization, and can scarcely be expected to be fair to third party and independent candidates. They also question the CPD's reliance on corporate money and maintain that it 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. Starting in 2000, the CPD has used three simple criteria. (In earlier cycles, the CPD used a complicated set of "objective criteria" that drew much 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.
In addition to who participates in the debates, there is the question of whether the full range of issues and ideas are addressed in a meaningful way. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has challenged the substantiveness of the CPD-sponsored debates. (See here for an example of how a debate might be conducted). 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..."
the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential debate agreements which run 53
apiece. They are bizarre examples of lunacy. No serious
should agree to them. They're childish. You don't elect a
to memorize. You elect a president to have wisdom, to have
thought, to reflect." —Newt Gingrich
Another critic, Ralph Nader, has argued that 21 presidential debates should be held, organized by communities around the country.
"Instead of the present, stifling, programmed three debates by the CPD, these twenty one debates would throw aside many of the taboos, bring the people into the process, address regional needs, excite larger voter turnout and compel the candidates to be better, more forthright candidates," —Ralph Nader (+).
Challenges to the Commission on Presidential Debates and its criteria
have proven unsuccessful.
There was considerable legal activity by minor party candidates in
1996, 2000 and 2004. In Nov. 2001, Rep.
Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced a resolution in Congress that sought to
for participation to 5-percent (H.C.R.
263) but it did not go anywhere. In 2004, Open
Debates, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit "committed to reforming the
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
and deceptive events proposed by the bipartisan Commission on
Debates (CPD)." (August
16, 2004 letter) Open Debates took
other actions. On Feb. 14, 2004 Open Debates filed a complaint
the FEC alleging "that presidential debates sponsored by the CPD are
by the major parties in violation of FEC debate regulations." The
Open Debates complaint sought to have "the FEC prohibit the CPD from
future corporate-sponsored presidential debates." And on April
Open Debates filed a complaint with the IRS in an attempt to revoke the
tax status of the CPD. Given
the lack of success of the various legal efforts it is not surprising
that there was no noticeable legal activity in the 2008.
In 2012 the
campaign of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson decided to have another
go at it, employing a new argument
in a Sept. 21 lawsuit charging the CPD with violating the Sherman
Anti-Trust Act of 1890 (press release).
in with an Oct. 22 lawsuit charging that
the CPD and others had "deprived her of her
constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and free
speech, as well as her statutorily protected civil rights" (press
release). That too failed. Excluded candidates and their
supporters are left with generally
This cycle, for example, Occupy the
Debates sought to encourage an alternative conversation and
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 have, at least until recently, taken federal
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.
The CPD proposal is on the table and serves as a starting point, but
campaign acts in its own best interest. The goal is to create the
possible set of circumstances for their candidate.
In past cycles there had been a ritual debate over
debates. For several weeks the two
major campaigns jockeyed 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. (See the
campaigns again carried out their negotiations out of the
spotlight (+) (Time magazine's Mark Halperin has
posted the 21-page memorandum of understanding) >.
The format of a debate has a critical impact on nature of the exchanges that occur or do not 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
the candidates undergo intensive preparations. Briefing books are
put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates. The
sometimes provide glimpses of these rehearsals. There are also efforts to set expectations
(1, 2, 3).
For example, a Romney campaign memo states, "President Obama is a
universally-acclaimed public speaker and has substantial debate
experience under his belt." An RNC memo notes, "President Obama
is undoubtedly a
gifted political orator, whose eloquence can obscure his lack of
substance." An Obama campaign memo states, "[W]e expect Mitt
Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and
aggressive debater." Further, the Obama memo states that the
Romney campaign has "confidently predicted for months that he will
turn in a campaign-changing performance such as Ronald Reagan’s in 1980." Romney
campaigns' and the parties' rapid
response efforts ramp up and issue various communications to set the
stage as well as prebuttals rebutting points that they expect to be
made. Closer to the debate, the candidates may be seen engaging
in public displays of confidence such as throwing a
baseball, jogging, or giving a thumbs up.
During the debate, citizens watching on television or
Internet form initial impressions of the candidates based on their
claims, assertions, gaffes or awkward moments and body language.
(People who listen on the radio may form very different
An ongoing and vibrant discussion unfolds in the social media (+), as
Tweets, Facebook postings and the like amplify key moments. Not
all the claims and assertions are true. The social media and
traditional media will bring misstatements to the fore, but some have
argued that a fact checking role should be integrated into the debates
as they proceed (+).
in 1996, the
CPD ran a Debate
Watch program to encourage debate-watching groups around the
country. This year the CPD announced "The Voice Of..."
The rapid response units go into high gear
during and after a debate,
working feverishly to produce rebuttals to various claims; these
documents are e-mailed out throughout the evening. Following each
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.
After the debate pundits and commentators weigh
form an integral part of post-debate coverage. Many media outlets
a groups of undecided voters to watch debates and then interview
participants for their
reactions. The media also fulfills its fact-checking role.
Several third party candidate
debates typically occur. Although C-SPAN does cover some of
these, they usually
receive virtually no attention. One organization that has done
work on such events is the
Free & Equal Elections
Foundation. In 2012 the Foundation organized two
debates. The first in Chicago on Oct. 23 brought together Gary
Goode, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson (+); Johnson and Stein
advanced to the second, in Washington, DC on Nov. 5 (+).
Additionally, Ralph Nader hosted a third party candidate debate with
the four candidates in Washington, DC on Nov. 4 (+).
Oct. 2, 2008
St. Louis, MO
Coral Gables, FL
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2004
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 5, 2000
San Diego, CA
Oct. 9, 1996
St. Petersburg, FL
St. Louis, MO
|Oct. 19, 1992
East Lansing, MI
Oct. 13, 1992
Los Angeles, CA
Oct. 5, 1988
Kansas City, MO
Oct. 11, 1984
Sept. 21, 1980
Oct. 28, 1980
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 15, 1976
|Sept. 26, 1960||Oct. 7, 1960||Oct. 13, 1960||Oct. 21, 1960|