- - Thursday, July 16, 2015


Increasingly, countries all over the world — particularly emerging democracies — are making leaders’ debates a part of their electoral processes. In large part, these debates have been inspired by the United States’ general election presidential debates, which are carried live on major television networks worldwide.

Although Americans now expect televised presidential debates, there is often some confusion about how those debates come to be every four years.

Candidates are not legally required to debate and presidential debates were not always a given in the United States. After the historic Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, there were no debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972. There ultimately were debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, but in between there was much uncertainty whether that they would occur. These circumstances led to two formal studies that recommended the debates be sponsored by an entity engaged in no other election-related activities. This led to the creation of nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Since 1988, the CPD has acted successfully as a neutral broker to bring the leading candidates together without the “debate over the debates.”

The CPD’s ability to serve as a neutral sponsor is based on several key factors.

First, the Commission on Presidential Debates receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate. As a 501(c)(3) organization, it is privately funded; donors have no input of any kind in its decisions. It is not controlled by, and does not have any relationship with, any political party. It does not endorse, support or oppose political candidates or parties.

Second, the CPD is governed by a strong and independent 17-person board of directors. The board is comprised of leaders who have many years of distinguished service in business, academia, law, government, journalism and philanthropy. Each director is firmly committed to the nonpartisan, voter-education mission of the CPD.

Third, the Commission on Presidential Debates has diligently worked to improve formats to maximize the educational value of the debates. Since 1996, rather than using a cumbersome panel of questioners, the debates have been moderated by a single individual in order to focus the maximum time and attention on the issues. The “town hall” format allows for undecided voters to pose their questions to the candidates. Debates in which the candidates have been seated with the moderator enhance a substantive, conversational exchange. Tight time constraints for candidate responses have been replaced by much longer segments devoted to in-depth discussion of major issues.

Fourth, the CPD alone decides the schedule, location, format and moderators. No campaign has veto power over the independent journalists who are selected to moderate, and the moderators alone know the questions they will ask.

Fifth, the Commission on Presidential Debates has a rigorous nonpartisan process for determining who will be invited to debate. There are scores of individuals who run for president every four years, including dozens who do not seek the nomination of either major party. CPD has always been committed to inviting the individuals who have emerged from that process as the leading candidates regardless of their party affiliation or independent status.

The CPD announces its nonpartisan candidate selection criteria a year before the debates and applies those criteria in the final weeks of a long general election campaign. Those criteria have sought to identify the individuals whose public support has made them the leading candidates. In addition to constitutional eligibility to serve as president and achieving sufficient ballot access to be elected president, those criteria require candidates to have an average of 15 percent support as measured by five major public opinion polls shortly after Labor Day. This level is the same used by the League of Women Voters in 1980 when the League included John Anderson in its debates. Using the candidate selection criteria it had in place in 1992, the CPD included Ross Perot in those debates. The CPD’s candidate selection criteria have been found by the Federal Election Commission and the courts to comply with federal election law.

These selection criteria remain a challenging issue. Some have expressed frustration that lesser-known candidates historically have not been included in the commission’s debates. The CPD strives to strike a balance that results in including those candidates, regardless of party affiliation, whose level of public support genuinely qualifies him or her as a leading candidate. However, history shows that leading candidates resist agreeing to share the stage with candidates enjoying only scant public support. The CPD tries to avoid taking an approach that could lead to a crowded debate stage or that is so inclusive that invitations to candidates with scant public support leads to the public losing the opportunity to see debates that include the candidates in whom they have the greatest interest. It also strives to avoid criteria that would amount to CPD anointing one or more candidates a “leading” candidate when they simply are not as measured by actual public support.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is already well underway with plans for 2016. Sixteen colleges, universities and cities have applied to host the debates, which will allow hundreds of students to participate in the production and educational aspects of each one. As it does between each debate cycle, the CPD is reviewing all aspects of the debates, including format and candidate selection criteria. The CPD has recently completed an online process for interested individuals and organizations to submit their ideas for these key civic education forums; these submissions will be a part of the review. The CPD will announce its plans for next year in some detail at the conclusion of its review.

Our goal for 2016 remains the same as always: to sponsor and produce great debates that inform American voters and inspire democracies around the world.

Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry are co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates.



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