The Commission on Presidential Debates: Time for a change

What is the Commission on Presidential Debates? It is a tool created by the Democratic and Republican parties which uses an illusion of fairness to maintain two-party dominance.

Who comprises the Commission? Mostly former Democratic and Republican leaders and elected officials, business leaders, and a couple of dead presidents. Literally.

The Commission determines who will be invited to–and kept from–the major debates prior to the general election. These debates are televised. They candidates receive millions of dollars worth of press coverage, as do their respective parties. The CPD successfully keeps Independent or 3rd party candidates from appearing, perpetuating the illusion that only the Democratic and Republican parties have worthy candidates for president.

Writes Brian Doherty at

The front door in to those debates requires being on the ballot in enough states that an Electoral College victory is technically possible. That’s a hurdle the [Libertarian Party] will have no trouble meeting. (They have 32 states already in the bag and with signature deadlines still ahead in the others, feel reasonably confident they will get all 50 plus the District of Columbia.)

The other criteria to get in set by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is that a candidate must be polling at least 15 percent in five national polls.


But those polls will, according to the CPD, “be selected based on the quality of the methodology employed, the reputation of the polling organizations and the frequency of the polling conducted. CPD will identify the selected polling organizations well in advance of the time the criteria are applied.”

While keeping the entry bar high via electability (must have enough EC votes in play to win) sounds like a good idea, it isn’t. A candidate need not win enough states to take the presidency to affect the election. A strong showing by one or more Independent or 3rd party candidates could prevent an outright win by any candidate. Of course the CPD doesn’t want other candidates involved because they want an outright win by a Democrat or Republican.

Fifteen percent polling is a bar just high enough to keep out nearly any third party candidate. It’s been 24 years since Ross Perot shared a debate stage. Allowing an extra candidate four times a century isn’t likely to challenge the status quo.

commission on presidential debates romney obama debate

More than fifty prominent appointed and elected political leaders voiced concerns last year that the Commission actually hurts democracy. Sometime senator Joe Leiberman said, “[The two-party system] is not working in the best interests of our country and it needs to be challenged and, in some sense, assaulted.”

Assaulted. Now we’re talking.

This year the Commission has voiced openness to including a 3rd party candidate.

“The dynamic in the electorate right now and the dissatisfaction with the two major political parties could very conceivably allow an independent or a third-party candidate to emerge, and we are very clear that they would be welcome in these debates,” commission co-chair Michael McCurry told “Open Mind” host Alexander Heffner.

Heffner had observed that “it seems increasingly possible that a plausible debate stage would add a podium” this year and asked whether the debate commissioners “hope that there is another voice represented in the conversation.”

“I think it would be great,” said McCurry’s partner, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. Neither co-chair said whether the inclusion of a third candidate would require any special accommodations or tweaks to what has been a one-on-one structure for two decades.

However, such openness may not be organic since the CPD is being sued by both the Libertarian and Green parties.

The Libertarian and Green parties – along with their respective presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein – filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, charging that the exclusion of “qualified candidates” from the general election presidential debates by the Commission on Presidential Debates violates federal anti-trust laws.

“For over 25 years, the Commission on Presidential Debates has used millions of dollars in tax-deductible contributions from big corporations to rig the rules, keeping Americans from hearing from anyone but the two old parties in debates,” said Nicholas Sarwark, chairman of the National Libertarian Committee.

“If two teams got together to make sure that only they could make it to the Super Bowl, people would be outraged at the cheating. With this lawsuit, we’re standing up for the right of Americans to have fair debates between all candidates who are on enough ballots to become president,” Mr. Sarwark noted.

The legal challenge maintains that the commission “intentionally limits participation in the nationally-televised debates to the Democrat and Republican nominees – placing other national parties’ nominees at an unfair disadvantage.”

It isn’t the first time the Commission has been sued. The 2008 textbook, Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future, found plaintiffs

argu[ing] that the CPD is a “bipartisan” rather than “nonpartisan” organization and is therefore illegal. If the CPD were a bipartisan organization—nothing more than an extension of the Republican and Democratic parties—then the various corporate contributions it receives would amount to illegal campaign contributions to the candidates under federal election law.

“Nothing more than an extension of the Republican and Democratic parties.” Do tell.

Brief History

At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission’s creation, Frank Fahrenkopf said that the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates, and Paul G. Kirk, Democratic national chairman, said he personally believed they should be excluded from the debates. The fix was in from the beginning.

The CPD stepped into a void created when the League of Women Voters refused to be involved with the Bush-Dukakis debate. From a 1988 press release:

“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on
September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and vas presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

“The campaigns’ agreement is a closed-door masterpiece,” Neuman said. “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.”

Out went the League and in came the fraud upon the public.

Who comprises the Commission on Presidential Debates?


Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. is President & CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), a lobbying group for the casino industry. Fahrenkopf served as Chairman of the Republican Party for six of Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House.

Michael D. McCurry is a partner/principal at Public Strategies Washington, Inc. He served in the White House as press secretary to President Bill Clinton (1995-1998), and also served as spokesman for the Department of State and director of Communications for the DNC.

Honorary Co-Chairmen

Gerald R. Ford*

Jimmy Carter

Ronald Reagan*

Co-Chairman Emeritus

Paul G. Kirk, Jr. is chairman and chief executive officer of Kirk & Associates, Inc., a business advisory and consulting firm located in Boston. He has served as chairman of the Democratic Party (1985 – 1989) and as its treasurer (1983 – 1985).

Board of Directors

Howard G. Buffett, the middle son of Warren Buffett, is a businessman, philanthropist, and former politician (commissioner, Douglas County, Nebraska).

John C. Danforth is chairman of the Danforth Foundation, a former 18-year senator from Missouri (Republican), and partner with the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP. In 2004, Danforth represented the United States as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. President Bush appointed Danforth as special envoy to Sudan in 2001.

Mitchell E. “Mitch” Daniels, Jr. is the Republican former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University.

Charles Gibson is a television news personality and talk-show host.

John Griffen seems to have successfully avoided the Internet.

Jane Harman is the former 9-term Democratic representative from California’s 36th district. She now serves as the Director, President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Antonia Hernandez is the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation. Previously, Ms. Hernández was president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)

Reverend John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., is the president of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

Jim Lehrer is a former American journalist and novelist, and is the former executive editor and a former news anchor for the PBS NewsHour. Lehrer has also served as a presidential debate moderator.

Newton N. Minow is senior counsel in Sidley’s Chicago office. He served as Chairman of the FCC under President John F. Kennedy. He’s old enough to be father of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Keith Richards.

Richard D. Parsons is a Senior Advisor at Providence Equity Partners Inc., a leading private equity investment firm specializing in media, communications and information companies. He is also Chairman of the Board of Citigroup, Inc. Parsons currently serves on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Dorothy S. “Dot” Ridings served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Council On Foundations, Inc., until 2005. Ms. Ridings serves as a Director of The Community Foundation of Louisville Inc.

Olympia Snowe served 3-terms as a Republican senator from Maine. Snowe is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s board of directors, a BPC senior fellow, and co-chair of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform.

Shirley M. Tilghman, Ph.D., is president emerita and professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University. On January 1, 2016 Tilghman became a member of the Harvard Corporation.

Executive Director

Janet H. Brown has led the commission since its founding in 1987 and previously worked in staff positions at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, the State Department and the Senate.

Proposed Changes

If the Commission on Presidential Debates is non-partisan as they claim rather than bipartisan as they appear, they should do the following beginning 2016:

1. Include any candidate who is on the ballot in enough states to win 50 electoral college votes.

2. Include any candidate polling at over 10% in three national polls. Polls to be selected by Real Clear Politics, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.

3. Include any candidate whose party met either of the first two criteria in the previous presidential election.

4. Include the third party or Independent candidate who is in third place which shall determined by the average of five national polls. Polls to be selected by Real Clear Politics, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times,

Some might say, “We can’t do that. We might get some real oddballs on the stage.” To which I respond, “Have you seen 2016?”

If you are on Twitter, consider tagging @debates when you tweet this post.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Barbara

    Is this Commission loaded with Democrats or not?

    • Marshall Eubanks

      No, Barbara, it’s not. It’s loaded with duopolists, so-called Republicans _and_ so-called Democrats.

      That’s the whole point: of the organization, and this article. (Evidently reading comprehension isn’t your strong suit — my guess is you are looking for neat labels so you can pigeonhole this into your preconceived understanding, without trying to adapt to new information).

      (R) and (D) aren’t, in practice, nearly so different as they might seem in theory, or as they’d have you believe. By convincing Americans that each election represents a dire choice between salvation and catastrophe, and by excluding third choices, the two parties are free to introduce candidates who effectively collude in serving (the same) special interests.

      Free from actual voter influence, the two parties have drifted towards a crony capitalistic center, and essentially shaped our entire government to being a giant gravy train directed at funneling wealth to basically every group with successfully lobbies (which, you should have realized by now, notably excludes the typical American taxpayer).

      As they become more similar, the two parties’ need to create artificial difference grows, as does their need to exclude third parties (which would underline how similar R and D have really become). So we have a vicious cycle, with the result being the current trainwreck of an election – where literally nobody supports either “major” candidate for any reason other than hatred of the other.

      • Jerry Brickley

        Where do you get off belittling this women, rather than her comment.

        You do yourself a disservice and it isn’t necessary for me to engage in your ad hominem tactics. I just want to inform you of how poorly your behavior reflects on you and your upbringing. It certainly diminishes the credibility of your person.

        • Marshall Eubanks

          Sorry, but I have no respect for someone so transparently intellectually bankrupt. She couldn’t even RTFA! She asked for cliffnotes in the form of partisan labels. I belittled her _for_ that comment (not because she was born a certain way or because of who she is). So far nothing you’ve said convinces me that that level of asininity deserves anything other than ridicule.

          And, incidentally, whether it is “necessary” for you to “engage in [my] ad hominem tactics”, that’s exactly what you just did. No rebuttal to my claims; just an assertion of poor upbringing on my part.

          Physician, heal thyself.

        • Jason R

          Jerry needs a safe space or he might be triggered by rational thought.