PRESS RELEASE from Open Debates

For Immediate Release
October 23, 2012
Contact: George Farah

CPD Improves Debate Formats But Major Problems Persist

In 2012, the Commission on Presidential Debates hosted three debates that featured ground-breaking formats. Unlike previous debates, which prohibited the candidates from talking to each other and often limited their responses to 90-seconds, the formats in 2012 allowed the candidates to engage in 11-minute free-for-alls after each question. The lack of time and content restrictions elicited unprecedented fireworks and revealing interactions between the candidates. At times, the head-to-head discussions forced the candidates off their scripts and into a real and substantive debate. The Commission deserves praise for responding to its critics and advocating for more informative debate formats.

Yet, major problems with the presidential debates persisted in 2012.

First, the Commission refused to release the contract – the Memorandum of Understanding – that was secretly drafted by the major party campaigns to govern the 2012 debates. Most provisions in such contracts are trivial, such as those prohibiting the candidates from wearing risers in their shoes. Other provisions, however, weaken formats, exclude third party candidates and limit the number of debates. Rather than make such contracts public, the Commission has consistently implemented and concealed it. In 2012, the Commission refused to release the contract, even after Open Debates and 17 other pro-democracy groups – including Common Cause, Public Citizen and Rock the Vote – demanded the Commission make the document public. (The contract was eventually leaked to Time Magazine against the Commission’s wishes.)

Second, the Commission employed candidate selection criteria designed to keep third-party voices out of the debates. Since 2000, the Commission has required any candidate to obtain 15% in the polls to qualify for participation in the debates. Yet, this threshold is absurdly high. If applied historically, it would have excluded every third-party candidate from every televised presidential debate in history, including John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992. Moreover, to qualify for taxpayer funds, a candidate only needs to win 5% of the vote. The Commission should use criteria that allow candidates to participate if a majority of eligible voters support their inclusion or if they reach 5% in pre-debate polls. Applied historically, such criteria would only have included four third-party candidates since the inception of televised debates: John Anderson in 1980; Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996; Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004; and Pat Buchanan in 2000.

Third, the Commission improperly monopolized and limited the number of debates in 2012. The new formats only allowed about six questions for each debate, in order to permit time for lengthy discussion. As a result, important issues were never addressed – from immigration to the environment to gun control. More debates are needed to cover all this ground. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas debated eight times, each debate lasting three hours. The Republican primaries featured 27 debates, and functioned as an antidote to the influence of money, felling establishment candidates like Rick Perry and catapulting virtual unknowns like Herman Cain. Yet, the Commission only permits three debates in the general election. Each Memorandum of Understanding expressly states that the major party candidates are prohibited from participating in any other debates, with any other candidates, or with any other sponsor.

Fourth, although the formats have greatly improved, there were still major problems with them in 2012. For the first time in history, candidates were informed of the topics of the questions before each debate. For the first time in history, the moderator was prohibited from asking any follow-up questions. (Fortunately, one of the moderators, Candy Crowley, openly defied those rules.) The town hall debate has evolved from allowing audience members to ask anything in 1992, to abolishing follow-up questions in 1996, to requiring each question to be pre-screened by the moderator since 2004.

The reason these problems persist is that the Commission is creature of the two major parties. In 1986, the two parties ratified an agreement to “take over the presidential debates,” and the newly-created Commission seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. As a result, the Commission will never pursue democratic reform of the debates that would particularly destabilize or discomfort the two major parties.

The debate sponsor hasn’t always been so deferential to the major parties. In 1980, the League of Women Voters invited independent candidate John B. Anderson to participate in a debate, even though President Jimmy Carter adamantly refused to debate him. In 1984, when the Republican and Democratic campaigns vetoed 80 proposed debate moderators, the League held a press conference and lambasted the candidates for trying to eliminate difficult questions. Four years later, when the Republican and Democratic campaigns drafted the first ever debate contract, the League refused to implement it and instead publicly accused the campaigns of “perpetrating a fraud on the American voter.”

To protect our most important election events, we need a genuinely nonpartisan debate sponsor that will follow in the footsteps of the League of Women Voters and courageously resist any anti-democratic demands of the major party candidates.

Open Debates and its allies made some headway in weakening the Commission’s dominance in 2012. The Commission is primarily financed by corporate sponsors, the most prominent of which, Anheuser-Busch, has donated millions of dollars. For the first time, Open Debates and its allies managed to persuade corporate sponsors to withdraw their support of the Commission. Three sponsors – including tech-giant Philips Electronics — terminated their affiliation with the Commission because it is perceived as partisan.