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 an exchange of soundbites. 

The Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-profit organization established in 1987, has organized all general election debates since 1988 (six election cycles now).  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.1  The CPD debates have become very well established and although other 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 (+).

First Presidential Debate (domestic policy)
Wed. Oct. 3, 2012
University of Denver, Denver, CO
Vice Presidential Debate
Thurs, Oct. 11, 2012
Centre College,
Danville, KY
Second Presidential Debate (town mtg)
Tues. Oct. 16, 2012
Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY
Third Presidential Debate (foreign policy)
Mon. Oct. 22, 2012
Lynn University,
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; for example the 2008 formats featured looser time constraints.  However, despite the best efforts of the moderators, direct exchanges between Obama and McCain were rare and the presidential debates remained somewhat stilted affairs.  Additionally, major issues such as immigration were not 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 pods.

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 presidential debate 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 million viewers). 

Controversy Over the CPD

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.

Third party candidates have raised strong objections to their exclusion from the debates.  They argue that the 15-percent threshhold is arbitrary and too high.  (1, 2)

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..."

"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  

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. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced a resolution in Congress that sought to lower the threshhold 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 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 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 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).  The Johnson campaign's effort failed.  Green candidate Jill Stein weighed 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 ineffectual protests.  This cycle, for example, Occupy the Debates sought to encourage an alternative conversation and activities.


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 have, at least until recently, taken federal funds.  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.  The CPD proposal is on the table and serves as a starting point, but each campaign acts in its own best interest.  The goal is to create the most favorable 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 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.  (See the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] from 2004).  Closed-doors meetings alternated with pointed public pronouncements, but eventually the two sides reached an accord.  In 2008 the Obama and McCain campaigns reached an agreement quickly and without posturing. In 2012 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 debates, the candidates undergo intensive preparations.  Briefing books are put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates.  The media 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 is more in practice having gone through 19 debates during the primary season (+).  In the background, the 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. 

Making Sense of the Debates

During the debate, citizens watching on television or the 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 impressions).  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 addition to its work organizing the debates, the CPD has also undertaken efforts to enhance the viewing experience.  Starting 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..." internet initiative. 


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 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. 


After the debate pundits and commentators weigh in.  Spin soundbites form an integral part of post-debate coverage.  Many media outlets assemble a groups of undecided voters to watch debates and then interview participants for their reactions.  The media also fulfills its fact-checking role.

Third Party Debates

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 Johnson, Virgil 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 (+).

Dates and Locations of Past Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates

Sept. 26, 2008
Oxford, MS

Oct. 7, 2008
Nashville, TN

Oct. 15, 2008
Hempstead, NY

Oct. 2, 2008
St. Louis, MO

Sept. 30, 2004
Coral Gables, FL
Oct. 8, 2004
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 13, 2004
Tempe, AZ
Oct. 5, 2004
Cleveland, OH
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