Commission on Presidential Debates

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Commission on Presidential Debates
File: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
Parent organization
Democratic Party, Republican Party
Website Official website

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private firm. It began in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties to establish the way that presidential election debates are run between candidates for President of the United States. The Commission is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation as defined by federal US tax laws,[1] whose debates are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations.[2]

The 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 controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988. The Commission is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf, a former head of the Republican National Committee, and former White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry.[3] As of 2014,[4] 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.


The CPD has moderated the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 debates. Prior to this, the League of Women Voters moderated the 1976, 1980, 1984 debates before it withdrew from the position as debate moderator with this statement after the 1988 Presidential debates: "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." The Commission was then taken over by the Democratic and Republican parties forming today's version of the CPD.

In 2000, the CPD established a rule that for a party to be included in the national debates it must garner at least 15% support across five national polls.[5] This rule is considered controversial[6] as most[dubious ] Americans tune into the televised national debates and hear only the opinions of the two main parties instead of the opinions of the multiple other U.S. parties, including three others considered "major" for having organization in a majority of the states and a couple dozen others considered "minor".

Washington University in St. Louis has been selected by the Commission to host more Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates than any institution in history.[7]


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 podiums. 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."[8]

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

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.[9]

In 2003, a 501(c)(3) called Open Debates was formed[10] to advocate debates that included third parties and that allowed exchanges among the candidates.[11] 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)[12] and CPD informing the candidates of the debate topics in advance.[13]

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."[14] On October 8, 2004, Green Party candidate David Cobb was arrested in an act of civil disobedience, breaking a police line while protesting the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding third-party candidates from the nationally televised debates in St. Louis, Missouri. Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik also was arrested in the protest.

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]

In August 2012, an informal group called Help the Commission on Presidential Debates, as a reaction to the CPD website having no contact information,[16] offered to print out comments sent to them and hand-deliver the printouts to CPD.[17] They claim success in getting the CPD to post an e-mail address,[18][19] but since then attempts to hand-deliver printed comments have been met with threats of arrest.[20]

Also in August, 2012 a second informal group called Occupy the CPD was formed[21] and a month later members visited Romney campaign headquarters in Boston dressed in chicken costumes carrying signs reading "too chicken to face [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein in a rematch" and presented a Romney staffer with "The World's Biggest Chicken Award."[22] Jill Stein had previously debated Mitt Romney during the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election[23] after which The Boston Globe declared her "the only adult in the room."[24][25]

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.[26][27]


During the 2000 election, the CPD stipulated that candidates would only be invited to debate if they had a 15% support level across five national polls. Ralph Nader, a presidential candidate who was not allowed to debate because of this rule, believed that the regulation was created to stifle the views of third party candidates by keeping them off the televised debates. Nader brought a lawsuit against them in a federal court, on the basis that corporate contributions violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. After a series of FEC actions and lower court decisions, the D.C. Circuit Court ultimately ruled in 2005 that because Congress vested discretionary power in the FEC (meaning that an FEC action would have to rise to the level of arbitrary and capricious to be challenged), the court would not overrule the FEC's determinations that "found that the third-party challengers had failed to provide 'evidence that the CPD is controlled by the DNC or the RNC,'" and that the CPD provided sufficient rationale for barring third party candidates from entering the debates as audience members out of fear they might have disrupted the live debates in protest over having been excluded as debate participants.[28]

On September 21, 2012, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson filed an anti-trust lawsuit against 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. Although the complaint recounts the history of CPD formation, it omits any mention of either the Nader/Hagelin 2000 lawsuit or the FEC. The Johnson complaint asks "for injunctive relief by temporary restraining order ... by enjoining defendants ... from conducting presidential debates unless all constitutionally-eligible candidates are included whose names will appear on the ballots in states whose cumulative total of electoral college votes is 270 or more."[29] However, the case was dismissed in January 2014 on a jurisdiction technicality. [30]

On October 22, 2012, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein announced a lawsuit against CPD claiming, "that the CPD, Democratic National Committee, and Republican National Committee, together with the Federal Election Commission and Lynn University, had deprived her of her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and free speech, as well as her statutorily protected civil rights."[31]


  1. CPD: Our Mission
  2. CPD: National Debate Sponsors
  3. Commission Leadership
  4. "Commission Leadership". Commission on Presidential Debates. Archived from the original on 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2012-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Raskin, Jamin (2003). Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court Versus the American People. Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 978-0415934398. Retrieved 2012-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Presidential debate sponsors drop over exclusion of Gary Johnson". Washington Post. 2012-10-03. Retrieved 2012-10-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "History of debates at Washington University in St. Louis". Newsroom. Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved 2012-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Gailey, Phil (February 19, 1987). "Democrats and Republicans Form Panel to Hold Presidential Debates". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Open Debates Inc. on Guidestar". Guidestar. 2003. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Paul Weyrich; Randall Robinson (2003-11-12). "End the Debates Before They Start". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. George Farah (2012-09-20). "Open Debates Criticizes Presidential Debate Commission for Informing Candidates of Debate Topics". Open Debates. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "July 25, 2012 archive of Commission on Presidential Debates website". Commission on Presidential Debates. 2012-07-25. Archived from the original on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Help the CPD Opens Washington Office". Help the CPD. 2012-08-22. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Help the CPD Announces Important Progress". Help the CPD. 2012-08-22. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Commission on Presidential Debates home page". Commission on Presidential Debates. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "CPD Threatens to Arrest HELPtheCPD Volunteer". Help the CPD. 2012-08-24. Retrieved 2012-09-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "WHOIS information on". Retrieved 2012-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Chickens picket Romney HQ in leadup to Denver debates protests". Jill Stein for President. 2012-09-30. Retrieved 2012-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Massachusetts Gubernatorial Debate Oct 9, 2002". C-Span. Retrieved 2012-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Derrick Z. Jackson (2002-10-25). "Debate Adds Little Clarity for Voters". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2012-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Green Party aims for sharp left turn in 2012 race". Agence France-Presse via 2012-07-16. Retrieved 2012-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Dylan Byers (2012-09-30). "Philips pulls presidential debate sponsorship". Politico. Retrieved 2012-09-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Elizabeth Flock (2012-10-01). "Two Sponsors Pull Out From Debates Over Exclusion Of Gary Johnson". U.S. News. Retrieved 2012-10-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. John Hagelin, et al. v. Federal Election Commission (D.C. Cir. 2005-08-09). Text
  29. Zeke Miller (2012-09-21). "Gary Johnson Files Anti-Trust Lawsuit To Get Into Presidential Debates". BuzzFeed. Retrieved 2012-09-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Stein files lawsuit against the CPD". October 21, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links