The 2016 Presidential election is still about 18 months away, yet the debates are becoming subject to debate. This is due partly to the proposed lawsuit by the Our America Initiative against the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the early start of the 2016 campaign season, and an announcement by the CPD that the Commission will seek input “on various elements of the debates, including the criteria used to determine who will be invited to debate, what formats will be used, and ways to enhance these civic forums.”
The first question to ask is: who is the CPD, and why do they control the Presidential debates? First, some back story on Presidential debates. The first Presidential debates were held in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and were held in the studios of television stations affiliated with CBS, NBC & ABC. In 1976, after a “16 year period in which there were no public presidential debates, the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) sponsored three presidential debates.” The League of Women Voters continued sponsoring debates through 1984, and in 1987 pulled their sponsorship “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” LWV President Nancy M. Neuman added, “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.”
Enter the CPD. The CPD was formed in 1987 to “ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between and among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States.” The CPD also claims it “is not controlled by any political party or outside organization and it does not endorse, support or oppose political candidates or parties.” However, no one except a former chair of the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee has chaired the CPD since its formation. Additionally, the selection criteria for candidates, at least 15% support across five national polls, can be seen as de facto support for the two major parties. Not to mention the fact that details of the debates, including question topics, are planned in advance with input from the candidates. It’s difficult for any candidate to achieve 15% support when they’re not even mentioned by the pollsters. In fact, the only time any candidate other than a Republican or a Democrat was involved in the CPD debates was independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992.
Since the 15% requirement was adopted by the CPD in 2000, there have been a few of organizations formed to advocate, or host, debates that included minor party and independent candidates. Some of these organizations wish to add a single candidate to the CPD debates, while others have actually hosted debates with multiple candidates. Of course, the Republican and Democratic Party nominees declined their invitations.
But, how many candidates is too many, and how should the invited candidates be selected? These are the questions that supporters of expanded debates don’t agree on. However, the consensus for inclusion in Presidential debates seems to be that any candidate on enough ballots to theoretically win an Electoral College majority should be invited to a Presidential debate. If there are to only be three debates, I would go one step further to include any candidate that is on the ballot or is a certified write-in candidate in enough states to theoretically receive an Electoral College majority. In 2012 and 2008, this would have added 4 candidates to the debate. It’s a small step in the right direction in allowing multiple ideas in the arena of political debate.