Every 4 years, a few weeks before election day, prime time TV is put on hold for 2 or 3 evenings when many, if not most, Americans watch the Presidential Debates.  But, much like the reality TV that is being preempted, the debates themselves aren’t all that real either.

Televised Debates Were a Game Changer

The first televised Presidential Debate was in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Richard NixonCredit: By Unknown or not provided [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsNixon.  That debate ushered in age of the telegenic politician.  Kennedy, of course, looked great on camera, while Nixon refused the help of a make-up artist, arrived with a five o clock shadow, and let’s face it—Nixon just wasn’t a great looking guy, at least compared to JFK.  At the time, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon fared better, but the majority of the electorate watched on TV, and Kennedy was considered the “winner.” He also won the election.

We didn’t have another televised debate until 1976, when debates began anew with meetings between the incumbent, Gerald Ford, and the eventual winner, Jimmy Carter. Ford was leading in the polls going into 2nd nationally televised debate, but he blundered on the question of Russia, and honestly--who hasn’t? All the same, Carter won that debate, and went on to win the election.

Time and time again, the debate “winners” have also won their respective elections. The televised Presidential Debates are arguably the most important part of any successful campaign and with good reason—they put the candidates and the issues squarely in front of the voters, all in one place. 

Or Do They?

The 1976, 1980 and 1984 debates were sponsored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters. In 1988, the League pulled it’s sponsorship of the debates when it was found that candidates George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis had reached a secret agreement, called a ‘memorandum of understanding,” about how the debates would be held, without the knowledge or consent of the League.  In the memo, the two candidates agreed in advance on everything from who the panelists would be to the height of the podiums. Most concerning, they agreed on who would be allowed to debate at all—namely, just Bush and Dukakis themselves.   

A statement issued by the League of Women Voters stated:

“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates...because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. 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 answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

To fill the void left when the LWV pulled its sponsorship, the Commission on Presidential Debates was created.  That sounds a lot like an official government agency, but actually the CPD was created jointly by, and is still controlled by, the Democratic and Republican Parties. 

Today, it is co-chaired by  Frank Fahrenkopf, a former head of the Republican National Committee and Bill Clinton’s former press secretary Michael D. McCurry. That sounds equitable, to a point—it’s run by one Republican and one Democrat, plus a lot of board members from both parties. However, a January 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans now consider themselves one flavor of independent or another.  And, while there are still staunch supporters of both main parties, who will no doubt vote along party lines, those aren’t the undecided voters that the debates should be intended to reach.

The Hoodwinking Continues

Those “Memorandums of Understanding,” or debate contracts as they call them now, continue to this day. The 2012 contract was leaked before the election and, while it held nothing earth shattering, there are a couple big reasons for concern:

To have a mathematical chance to win, an election a candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to get 270 electoral votes.  There were four candidates in 2012 who met that standard: Democrat Barrack Obama, Republican Mitt Romney, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and Libertarian Gary Johnson.  

However, the Commission on Presidential Debate rules, as written in the debate contract and agreed to by Obama and Romney, prohibited anyone who participates in the nationally televised debates from participating in any other debates. Other CDP rules—that state a candidate must be polling above 15% to be included (see more on that below) — prohibited Stein and Johnson from participating in the nationally televised debates.  

3rd Party DebateCredit: By Connie Ma (Flickr: Rocky speaks.) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsStein and Johnson met in several other debates, including one held by Free and Equal and moderated by Larry King. That debate was not seen on the major networks, but was broadcast on C-Span and Al Jazeera English, and other small and foreign networks, and had an estimated 20 million viewers worldwide. Here’s the problem:  because both Obama and Romney agreed to the CPD contract, they could not participate in Free and Equal’s debate, even if they had wanted to. As for the third party candidates, if they had somehow managed to get on stage with the big boys, they would have then had to agree to the same terms. The bottom line: the Council on Presidential Debates rules made sure that the American people were never able to see all of the possible candidates, side by side.

The second problem in the 2012 contract is that the debates are largely staged. In the “town-hall” debate for example, the questions posed to the candidates were ostensibly to come from citizens in the audience.  In reality, as the leaked contract shows, the questions came from the audience, but only after they were sanitized by the debate moderator, in this case, CNN’s Candy Crowley. The audience submitted their questions in advance, and of those questions, Crowley decided which questions would be asked. The contract further states that if anyone in the audience should diverge from the scripted question at all, or attempt to follow up with a candidate, their microphones would be cut-off.  So, not only are we not seeing all of the candidates, we’re not hearing all of the issues, either. Topics conspicuously absent from the 2012 debates include our failing “War on Drugs” and any mention at all of the controversial National Defense Authorization Act, to name just two.

“The commission needs a shakeup of their debates. Their debates are shams, there are secret backroom deals, the candidates get questions far in advance, and we’re not getting a real debate, we’re getting a scripted performance.”

 -- Zak Carter, Open Debates 2016

Third Party Debate Access

Ross PerotCredit: By Allan warren (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsIn 1992, Independent Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote, after an odd campaign that saw him dropping out at one point, just to jump back in a few months later.  That 19% is the largest percentage any 3rd party candidate has received in almost 100 years.  Guess what? In 1992 Ross Perot was allowed to participate in the televised debates sponsored by the CPD—the only 3rd party candidate to participate since the Commission took over. I suppose that could be a coincidence that he fared so well, but either way, after 1992, the Commission changed their rules.

Since 1996, in order to participate, a candidate must be polling at or above 15 % "as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations.” The Commission is at their own discretion to decide which polls are used, and their website does not specify. Besides the ambiguity regarding which polls they are using, there are two other glaring problems with this rule.

First, the 3rd party candidates are often not mentioned by name in polls. In 2012, many pollsThat Other GuyCredit: Own work simply asked whether you would vote for “Obama”, “Romney” or “Someone Else.” Or, they asked if you would vote “Democrat,” “Republican” or “Another Party.” It is pretty hard—you might say impossible—to poll at 15 % when you are not even one of the choices.  (Anecdotally, the only time I’ve ever been polled was in September of 2012. The pollster asked if I planned to vote for Obama or Romney, and seemed fairly surprised when I threw another name at him.)

Secondly, 15% is not only an arbitrary number; it’s a ridiculously high number. To put it in perspective: in order to receive federal funding for a campaign—that’s tax-payer dollars, a discussion for another day—the threshold is just 5%.  Also, 3rd party candidates--by definition—are the lessor known candidates.  When the sitting President only polls in the 35%-45% range, it’s hard to ask a little known candidate with an infinitely smaller budget and next to no press coverage to poll at nearly half that mark.

The Commission argues that the 15% rule exists to keep the debates from becoming too large—that they have to draw a line somewhere.  Okay, but in this country, if we had to have a good chance of winning in order to play, well, there wouldn’t be baseball on the north side of Chicago. But seriously, another of CPD’s own rules takes care of this problem completely:  To qualify for the debates a candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning. 

Electoral College MapCredit: By User:Gage ([1] Wikipeadia.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsObtaining ballot access is difficult and expensive.  The rules are different in every state.  In most states a candidate must come up with thousands of petition signers and/or the candidate or their party must have received some percentage of the vote in a previous election. It requires a lot of advertising, travel, speaking, hand-shaking and general “stumping.” It’s not for the casual candidate and it’s not something anyone would do for fun.  If a candidate has ballot access in enough states to garner 270 electoral votes, that candidate is serious about winning.  

Therefore, if a candidate is legally allowed to become president, and has a mathematical chance of winning, he or she should be allowed to debate. In 2012 that would have meant four people on the debate stage.  Historically, in 1996 we’d have seen three candidates, and in 2000 there would have been four. In both 2004 and 2008 only the two major party candidates would have been eligible. These would not be large, unwieldy debates in the least, but they would allow the American people to better know all of their choices.

In a country where more than 40% of people no longer identify as Republican or Democrat, it’s time we stopped letting the two major parties control the information we receive, and time we finally re-open up the debate stage.

What Should We Do?

We can hit the Commission on Presidential Debates in their wallet by contacting their sponsors and asking them to stop supporting them.  The CPD is a private organization and a non-profit, and thus relies on contributions from corporations and other foundations to operate. Just prior to the 2012 debates, three sponsors, BBH New York, the YWCA and Phillips Electronics, pulled support from the CPD in the midst of a largely grass-roots email and social media campaigns, and lobbying by groups such as Free and Equal and Open Debates, who feel the two party debate system is un-democratic.  A spokesperson for Phillips Electronics said that the company wants to avoid "even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics." I’d hope Budweiser and Southwest Airlines would like to avoid that as well.

As of 2012, which is the latest information available on the Commission’s website, the remaining sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates are:  Anheuser-Busch Companies, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq., Crowell & Moring LLP, International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), The Kovler Fund, and Southwest Airlines. You can shoot them an email, or let your opinion be known via social media.

Less likely to help, but probably worth trying, we can contact the Commission itself and ask them to change their ways. The Commission’s board of directors consists of: Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., Charles Gibson, Jane Harman, Leon E. Panetta, Olympia Jean Snowe, Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman, Howard G. Buffett, John C. Danforth, John Griffen, Antonia Hernandez, Reverend John I. Jenkins, Newton N. Minow, Richard D. Parsons, Dorothy Ridings, and Alan K. Simpson.

Further, there are multiple groups you can join or support that are already working towards fixing our debates, in one way or another. These include, among others, Free and Equal, Open Debates 2016, The Citizens’ Presidential Debate Commission (who are working to add debates to include all mathematically eligible candidates) and Our America Initiative (who have started a petition to reform our broken debate system).

And lastly, we can simply get the word out. The debates have become so important to the election process that every American should know the truth about them. We have social media, which means we all have a soap box. Grassroots efforts cans still work in this country, and we have more than two years before the next Presidential election. If nothing else, we should make sure all voters are aware of what the debates actually are, and what they actually are not. 

Full Disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I consider myself a libertarian with a little “L” (although not the kooky kind of libertarian that’s really more of an anarchist).  I voted for Gary Johnson in the 2012 election, and both times he was elected Governor of New Mexico.  It’s because of my support of Johnson a year and a half ago that I first learned of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and how ultimately unfair, and un-democratic, our current system has become.

Outside of being in agreement on this issue, I am in no way affiliated with Johnson, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, Free and Equal, Our America Initiative, the Citizens’ Presidential Debate Commission, Open Debates or Open Debates 2016.

Photo CreditsCredit: own work: Sami Duke