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Commission on Presidential Debates

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Commission on Presidential Debates
Commission on Presidential Debates logo.svg
Predecessor League of Women Voters (sponsor)
Formation 1987
Type Non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation
Purpose Organize the United States presidential election debates
Frank Fahrenkopf
Michael D. McCurry
Key people
Board of directors: Howard Graham Buffett, John I. Jenkins, J.C. Danforth, J. Griffen, A. Hernandez, C. Kennedy, N.N. Minow, R.D. Parsons, D. Ridings, A.K. Simpson
Website Official website

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit corporation, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988. The Commission's debates are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations.[1]

The Commission is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf, a former head of the Republican National Committee, and former White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry.[2] As of 2014,[3] the Board of directors consists of Howard Graham Buffett, John C. Danforth, Charles Gibson, John Griffen, Antonia Hernandez, John I. Jenkins, Newton N. Minow, Leon Panetta, Richard D. Parsons, Dorothy Ridings, Alan K. Simpson, Olympia Snowe, and Shirley M. Tilghman.


Debates before the CPD[edit]

The first presidential debates were held between Nixon and Kennedy during the 1960 election. No general election debates were held in 1964, and Richard Nixon refused to participate in debates in 1968 and 1972. Beginning with the 1976 election, the League of Women Voters sponsored the televised Ford-Carter debates, followed by the Anderson-Reagan and Reagan-Carter debates for the 1980 election, followed by Reagan-Mondale in 1984.


After studying the election process in 1985, the bipartisan National Commission on Elections recommended "[t]urning over the sponsorship of Presidential debates to the two major parties".[4] The CPD was established in 1987 by the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties to "take control of the Presidential debates".[4] The commission was staffed by members from the two parties and chaired by the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul G. Kirk and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr..[4] At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission's creation, 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.[4]

In 1988, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates after the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns secretly agreed to a "memorandum of understanding" that would decide which candidates could participate in the debates, which individuals would be panelists (and therefore able to ask questions), and the height of the lecturns. The League rejected the demands and released a statement saying that they were withdrawing support for the debates because "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."[5]

The CPD has hosted the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 debates.

Washington University in St. Louis has been selected by the Commission to host more Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates than any institution in history.[6]


Christopher Hitchens speaking at a September, 2000 third party protest at the Commission's headquarters.

In 2000, the CPD established a rule that for a candidate to be included in the national debates he or she must garner at least 15% support across five national polls.[7] This rule is considered controversial[8] as Americans tune into the televised national debates and hear only the opinions of the two largest parties instead of the opinions of the multiple other U.S. parties, including three others considered "major" for being organized in a majority of the states and a couple dozen others considered "minor".

In 2003, a 501(c)(3) called Open Debates was formed[9] to advocate debates that included third parties and that allowed exchanges among the candidates.[10] Criticism by Open Debates of CPD for the 2012 election include the secret contract between CPD and the Obama and Romney campaigns (a complaint joined by 17 other organizations including Judicial Watch)[11] and CPD informing the candidates of the debate topics in advance.[12]

In 2004, citing the CPD's 32 page debate contract, Connie Rice on NPR's The Tavis Smiley Show called the CPD debates "news conferences," and "a reckless endangerment of democracy."[13] On October 8, 2004, two presidential candidates, Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb were arrested while protesting the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding third-party candidates from the nationally televised debates in St. Louis, Missouri.[14]

In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the CPD a "secretive tax-exempt organization." CPI analyzed the 2004 financials of the CPD, and found that 93 percent of the contributions to the non-profit CPD came from just six donors, the names of all of which were blacked out on the donor list provided to the CPI.[15]

During the last week of September, 2012, three sponsors withdrew their sponsorship of the 2012 debates for not including third parties: BBH New York, YWCA USA and Philips Electronics.[16][17]

On October 16, 2012, Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and vice-presidential nominee Cheri Honkala were arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to take part in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.[18][19][20] The two women claim they were taken to a warehouse, and strapped for eight hours to chairs with plastic wrist restraints before being released.[21]


Multiple lawsuits have been filed by third-party candidates challenging the CPD's policy of requiring a candidate to have 15% support in national polls to be included in Presidential debates. While the lawsuits have challenged the requirement on a number of grounds, including claims that it violates FEC rules and that it violates anti-trust laws, none of the lawsuits has been successful.

During the 2000 election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader filed a complaint with the FEC, on the basis that corporate contributions to the CPD violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. The FEC ruled that the CPD's funding sources did not violate FECA, and, in 2005 the D.C. Circuit Court declined to overrule the FEC.[22]

In 2012, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the CPD, the RNC and the DNC in D.C. Circuit Court citing the Sherman Act and claiming "restraint of trade" for denying competition to, for example, potentially receive the $400,000 annual presidential salary.[23] The case was dismissed in 2014 due to lack of jurisdiction.[24]

In September of 2015, the Libertarian and Green parties – along with Johnson and Jill Stein – filed another lawsuit against the CPD, DNC, RNC, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, charging violation of federal anti-trust laws.[25][26] The case was dismissed in August 2016.[27][28][29]


  1. ^ "CPD: National Debate Sponsors". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  2. ^ "CPD: Commission Leadership". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  3. ^ "Commission Leadership". Commission on Presidential Debates. Archived from the original on 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  4. ^ a b c d Gailey, Phil (February 19, 1987). "Democrats and Republicans Form Panel to Hold Presidential Debates". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-07. 
  5. ^ "League of Women Voters of the United States: League Refuses to "Help Perpetuate a Fraud"". League of Women Voters. October 3, 1988. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  6. ^ "History of debates at Washington University in St. Louis". Newsroom. Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  7. ^ Raskin, Jamin (2003). Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court Versus the American People. Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 978-0415934398. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  8. ^ "Presidential debate sponsors drop over exclusion of Gary Johnson". Washington Post. 2012-10-03. Retrieved 2012-10-13. 
  9. ^ "Open Debates Inc. on Guidestar". Guidestar. 2003. Retrieved 2012-09-29. 
  10. ^ Paul Weyrich; Randall Robinson (2003-11-12). "End the Debates Before They Start". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-29. 
  11. ^ George Farah (2012-09-27). "18 Pro-Democracy Groups Call On Presidential Debate Commission to Make Secret Contract Public". Open Debates. Retrieved 2012-09-29. 
  12. ^ George Farah (2012-09-20). "Open Debates Criticizes Presidential Debate Commission for Informing Candidates of Debate Topics". Open Debates. Retrieved 2012-09-29. 
  13. ^ The Tavis Smiley Show. "Connie Rice: Top 10 Secrets They Don't Want You to Know About the Debates". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  14. ^ "Opponents fail to stop US debate". BBC News. 2004-10-13. Retrieved 2016-09-26. 
  15. ^ "Two-party debates: A Corporate-Funded, Party-Created Commission Decides Who Debates and Who Stays Home". Center for Public Integrity. 2008-09-18. Retrieved 2012-10-02. 
  16. ^ Dylan Byers (2012-09-30). "Philips pulls presidential debate sponsorship". Politico. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  17. ^ Elizabeth Flock (2012-10-01). "Two Sponsors Pull Out From Debates Over Exclusion Of Gary Johnson". U.S. News. Retrieved 2012-10-01. 
  18. ^ Zelman, Joanna (October 16, 2012). "Jill Stein Arrested Before Hofstra Debate". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 16, 2012. 
  19. ^ "Green Party's Stein Talks Arrest, Presidential Debates". WNYC. October 18, 2012. 
  20. ^ Amy Goodman (October 18, 2012). "Green party candidate Jill Stein's arrest highlights presidential debate stitch-up". London: The Guardian. 
  21. ^ "Green Party Candidates Arrested, Shackled to Chairs For 8 Hours After Trying to Enter Hofstra Debate". Democracy Now!. October 17, 2012. 
  22. ^ John Hagelin, et al. v. Federal Election Commission (D.C. Cir. 2005-08-09). Text
  23. ^ Zeke Miller (2012-09-21). "Gary Johnson Files Anti-Trust Lawsuit To Get Into Presidential Debates". BuzzFeed. Retrieved 2012-09-21. 
  24. ^ Winger, Richard (17 January 2014). "Gary Johnson's Complaint Against Commission on Presidential Debates Dismissed on Technicality, but His Case Against Major Parties Remains Alive". Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  25. ^ "Gary E Johnson et al v. Commission on Presidential Debates; Republican National Committee; Democratic National Committee; Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.; Michael D. McCurry; Barack Obama; and Willard Mitt Romney" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  26. ^ "Libertarian and Green parties sue the Commission on Presidential Debates for a spot on the stage". Washington Times. Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  27. ^ "Johnson Et Al V. Commission On Presidential Debates Et Al - -DC". Retrieved 2016-08-03. 
  28. ^ "JOHNSON et al v. COMMISSION ON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES et al :: District Of Columbia District Court :: Federal Civil Lawsuit No. 1:15-cv-01580". Retrieved 2016-08-03. 
  29. ^ Gerstein, Josh (August 5, 2016). "Judge rejects third parties' suit against debate commission". Politico. Retrieved August 11, 2016. 

External links[edit]