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, there is a lot of discussion, but invariably 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.

Site Selection Guidelines and application will be available Jan. 3, 2011. >
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.
  Although other organizations have put forth proposals for debates, none have come to fruition.  The CPD debates have become so established that it would be very surprising if there were not three presidential and one vice presidential debate, all sponsored by the CPD, in the period between late September and mid-October 2012.

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.  Major issues such as immigration were not addressed.  The vice presidential debate, held on Oct. 2, 2008 garnered the largest audience of the four debates, a reported 69.9 million viewers.  Audiences for the presidential debates ranged from 52.4 million to 63.2 million.

Controversy Over the CPD
Critics charge 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.  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. 

Challenges to the CPD 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 letterOpen 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 Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).  Given the lack of success of these various efforts, it is not surprising that there was no noticeable legal activity in the 2008 cycle.

In addition to who participates there is the question of content.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has challenged the substantiveness of the CPD-sponsored debates.  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

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.  Typically 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.
  In 2008 the Obama and McCain campaigns reached an agreement quickly and without posturing.  They did not, however, release the full Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] as happened in 2004.

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, during and after the debate a rapid response unit works feverishly to produce rebuttals to various claims made during the debate; these documents are distributed in the media center and e-mailed out.

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.  Starting in 1996, the Commission on Presidential Debates has run a Debate Watch program to encourage debate-watching groups around the country.  These groups provide convenient opportunities for local media to do debate coverage.

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 Free & Equal Elections

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
Note: 1988-2008 debates sponsored by Commission on Presidential Debates; 1984, 1980 and 1976 sponsored by the League of Women Voters; 1960 sponsored by the networks.

Planning and Negotiation Milestones for the 2008 and 2004 Debates
January 2, 2007 2008 Site Selection Guidelines and Application Information [PDF] issued.
March 31, 2007 Due date for proposals.  (19 applicants)
April-June 2007 Site surveys scheduled and conducted by CPD production staff.
June-September 2007 Review of proposals and site surveys.
November 19, 2007 CPD announces 2008 sites, dates, format and candidate selection criteria.  Proposes four 90-minute debates.
August 2, 2008
In a letter Obama campaign manager David Plouffe accepts the CPD proposal.

The Obama and McCain campaigns negotiate, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) for Obama and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for McCain.
August 21, 2008 Campaigns issue a joint statement accepting four debates as outlined in the CPD proposal.  (There was one difference--the original CPD proposal envisaged the first debate, at the University of Mississippi would be on domestic policy and the last debate at Hofstra University would be on foreign policy; the campaigns reversed it so the foreign policy debate would be first).
September 21, 2008
CPD announces the finalized formats, describing them as "historic."
September 26, 2008
First debate.

January 6, 2003 CPD posts 2004 site selection criteria.
March 31, 2003 Deadline for prospective hosts (on April 24, 2003 CPD announced that it had received proposals from 14 potential 2004 debate sites).
September 24, 2003
CPD announces 2004 candidate selection criteria (the same three criteria as in 2000).
November 6, 2003
CPD announces proposed 2004 sites and dates.
June 17, 2004
CPD announces formats for its proposed 2004 debates.
July 15, 2004
The Kerry-Edwards campaign announces its acceptance of the CPD's 2004 debate schedule.
August 13, 2004
CPD announces moderators for its proposed 2004 debates.
September 20, 2004
James A Baker, III and Vernon Jordan, Jr, the campaigns' debate negotiation team leaders, announce they have reached an agreement for the candidates to hold three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.
September 30, 2004
First debate.

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