The televised presidential debates are the mega-events of the fall campaign.  Stakes are high as the candidates face each other, across a single stage, within a month of the election, before a television audience of tens of millions of people.  A debate can reveal the candidates' differences and ability to think on their feet or it can devolve into a scripted exercise bordering on a joint press conference or an exchange of soundbites. 

Mega-Events

First Presidential Debate
Tues. Sept. 29, 2020
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN

Vice Presidential Debate
Wed, Oct. 7, 2020
The University of Utah,
Salt Lake City, UT

Second Presidential Debate
Thurs. Oct. 15, 2020
University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor, MI

Third Presidential Debate
Thurs. Oct. 22, 2020
Belmont University,
Nashville, TN


The fall presidential and vice presidential debates are high stakes spectacles which tend to produce a few memorable moments rather than a reasoned discussion of the issues; indeed some have criticized the events as exchanges of talking points.  They draw large audiences of television viewers; the record was set by the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump at Hofstra University on Sept. 26, 2016, which drew an estimated audience of 84.0 million viewers according to Nielsen. 

The debates have been organized by the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) since 1988.  Although other organizations have put forth proposals for debates, none have come to fruition.  In recent cycles, the CPD has organized three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate held in the closing weeks of the campaign between late September and mid-October (the earliest and latest debates were LWV-organized debate on Sept. 21 and Oct. 28, both in 1980 when there was a lot of wrangling over the participation of independent candidate John Anderson).  With the exception of 1992, when Ross Perot made the cut, the debates have featured just the two major party nominees, as other candidates have failed to meet an arbitrary polling threshhold set by the CPD.  On Oct. 11, 2019, the CPD announced dates, sites and candidate selection criteria for the planned 2020 debates (+).

The Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has begun preparing for the 2020 general election debates; this will be their ninth election cycle.  Before formation of the CPD, debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters (1976, 1980, and 1984) and the networks (1960).  The CPD develops the candidate selection criteria which are used to evaluate which candidates it will invite to participate.  It proposes dates and locations of debates.  It lines up corporate sponsors and oversees preparations for these important events.  CPD debates are typically held in university venues before live audiences; hosting a debate can bring a lot of exposure to institution, but it also imposes significant demands.  Wright State University had been selected to host the first presidential debate in 2016, but on July 19, with 68 days to go, it pulled out citing costs and security concerns.  In 2007, 19 sites submitted applications to host one of the debates, but only six sites have applied to host one of the 2020 debates. 

Planning Milestones for Recent Debates

2003
2007
2011
2015
2019
CPD posts site selection criteria
Jan. 6,
2003
Jan. 2,
2007
Jan. 3,
2011
Jan. 2,
2015 (+)
Jan. 2,
2019 (+)
Deadline to submit proposal to host debate (Number of Applicants)
March 31
(14)
March 31
(19)
March 31
(12)
March 31
(16)
April 2
(6)
CPD review of proposals and site surveys ...
...
...
...

CPD announces criteria (for 2004, 2016)
Sept. 24
... ... Oct. 29

CPD announces proposed sites, dates, criteria
Nov. 6
Nov. 19
Oct. 31
Sept. 23
Oct. 11

2004
2008
2012
2016
2020
CPD announces formats
June 17

July 25
July 7

CPD announces moderators
Aug. 13
Aug. 5
Aug. 13(+) Sept. 2

Campaigns negotiate
...
...
...


Campaigns reach agreement/MOU
Sept. 20
Aug. 21
Oct. 3 (+)


Final formats/moderators

Sept. 25



First debate
Sept. 30,
2004
Sept. 26,
2008
Oct. 3,
2012
Sept. 26,
2016

See CPD press releases.

Controversy Over the CPD

Critics charge that the CPD is a bipartisan rather than a nonpartisan organization, and can scarcely be expected to be fair to third party and independent candidates.  The CPD is headed by co-chairs Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., a former RNC chairman, and from Jan. 2017, Dorothy Ridings, a former president of the LWV, and a board of directors.  Critics also question the CPD's reliance on corporate money and maintain that it lacks transparency.

The core question boils down to who is on the debate stage.  Clearly some limits must be set, for with too many candidates these events will become unmanageable.  Starting in 2000, the CPD has used three simple criteria.  (In earlier cycles, the CPD used a complicated set of "objective criteria" that drew much criticism).  To participate in the debates, candidates must:

(a) be constitutionally eligible;

(b) have ballot access in enough states to win a majority of electoral votes (at least 270); and

(c) have a level of national support of at least 15 % as measured in polls done by five selected national polling organizations.

Third party candidates have raised strong objections to their exclusion from the debates.  They argue that the 15-percent threshhold is arbitrary and too high.  In 2016 the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson seemed like he might have a shot at meeting the 15-percent but fell well short (+). 

There have been many legal challenges to the CPD and its criteria over the years, all unsuccessful.  Legislation has been been introduced in Congress but made no headway.  [See: Efforts to Open the Debates]

Excluded candidates and their supporters are left with generally ineffectual protests.  These candidates sometimes do interviews from the debate site, their supporters can protest outside the security perimeter, and they may live tweet or otherwise respond during the event.  In 2012 Occupy the Debates sought to encourage an alternative conversation and activities (+).  However, nothing can make up for a candidate's exclusion from the debate stage.

Format

Each cycle the CPD tweaks its formats to try to improve the debates.  For 2016 the report of the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform, released June 17, 2015, offered a number of recommendations "to improve the quality, reach and relevance of debates."  This was a very significant report, with recommendations in three areas: expanding and enriching debate content; broadening the accessibility of the debates; and improving the transparency and accountability of the debate process.  One of the most noteworthy proposals was to "eliminate on-site audiences for debates other than the town hall, and, in the process, reduce the need for major financial sponsors and audiences filled with donors."  This was a direct challenge to the way the CPD has done business, and was not implemented.  The idea of holding debates in studio without a live audience, possibly sponsored by news organizations, would not only reduce costs but would also diminish some of the spectacle of these events, which might be a good thing.

Instead of big changes, the CPD has made a number of minor adjustments.  For the 2008 debates CPD loosened time constraints (+).  For the 2012 debates, seeking to focus more time on big issues, the CPD tried a new format in which the first and last debates were divided into six approximately 15-minute long segments or pods (+).  Even critic George Farah of Open Debates stated that, "The Commission deserves praise for responding to its critics and advocating for more informative debate formats."  However, he went on to outline "major problems" with the CPD debates (+).  

The format of a debate has a critical impact on nature of the exchanges that occur or do not occur and on the amount of information viewers are able to learn.  The most obvious parameter to consider is who is on the stage and who is not, but there are many other factors.  Is there a live audience and are they controlled or disruptive?  Is the subject matter confined to one area, such as the economy, or is it more wide-ranging?  What is the time limit on candidate responses and on rebuttals?  Finally, who asks the questions?  The 1960 and 1976-1988 presidential debates exclusively used the panel of reporters.  More recently the single moderator and town hall formats have come into favor.  The town hall format was first used in the Richmond, VA debate in 1992.  Having an audience of undecided voters pose the questions likely results in a broader range of questions, but on the downside this format does not foster follow-ups.  One format which has not been attempted is to have the candidates question each other directly.  The Annenberg report recommended increasing direct candidate exchanges, as well as using "alternate formats for some of the debates, including a chess clock model that gives each candidate an equal amount of time to draw upon."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has challenged the substantiveness of the CPD-sponsored debates.  In an appearance in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 12, 2005 he called for an end to the current tightly formated presidential debates saying they "trivialize the whole process."  Instead, Gingrich said, the candidates should engage in a straightforward dialogue without a moderator for 90 minutes.  During a "Lincoln at Cooper Union" dialogue held on Feb. 28, 2007, Gingrich stated "I propose that we challenge every candidate in both parties to make a commitment before the nominating process begins that if they become the nominee they will agree from Labor Day to the election to nine 90 minute dialogues, one a week for nine weeks..."

"I commend to you the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential debate agreements which run 53 pages apiece.  They are bizarre examples of lunacy.  No serious adult should agree to them.  They're childish.  You don't elect a president to memorize.  You elect a president to have wisdom, to have serious thought, to reflect."  —Newt Gingrich  

Another critic, Ralph Nader, has argued that 21 presidential debates should be held, organized by communities around the country. 

"Instead of the present, stifling, programmed three debates by the CPD, these twenty one debates would throw aside many of the taboos, bring the people into the process, address regional needs, excite larger voter turnout and compel the candidates to be better, more forthright candidates," —Ralph Nader (+).

While it is nice to contemplate the idea of a series of dialogues or thoughtful discussions of issues, such debates are unlikely to ever occur because the candidates and their campaigns have the final word and the risk of participating in a free-ranging series of events in the closing months of the campaign is too great.

Negotiations

There is no requirement that presidential candidates participate in debates, but it would be quite damaging to be seen as avoiding or blocking the debates.  When it comes to the number, timing and formats of the debates, as well as who will participate, there is a lot of discussion, but invariably the major party candidates and their campaigns have the final word.  The CPD proposal is on the table and serves as a starting point, but each campaign acts in its own best interest.  The goal is to create the most favorable possible set of circumstances for their candidate.  (The memoranda of understanding from two of the debates that have come to light show the minute details involved: 2004 [PDF] and via Time magazine's Mark Halperin 2012). 

In recent cycles the debate negiotiations have occurred quietly and without fanfare.  In 2008 the Obama and McCain campaigns reached an agreement quickly and without posturing.  In 2012 the campaigns again carried out their negotiations out of the spotlight (+).  The same occurred in 2016; Marc Elias for Clinton and Dan McGahn for Trump headed negotiations that made no news.

In past cycles, however, there had been ritual debates over the debates.  For several weeks the two major campaigns jockeyed back and forth haggling over details big and small—everything from the number and format of the debates to the podium height and shape and who is or is not acceptable as a moderator.  Closed-doors meetings alternated with pointed public pronouncements, but eventually the two sides reached an accord.

Prep

In the lead up to the debates, the candidates undergo intensive preparations.  Briefing books are put together, and the candidates engage in mock debates.  Media accounts sometimes provide glimpses of these rehearsals.  In 2016 there was a marked contrast between the two candidates' approaches, as Clinton made intensive preparations, including staying off the campaign trail for days in advance of the encounters, while Trump did much less prep and continued to hold rallies.  There are also efforts to set expectations.  In the background, the campaigns' and the parties' rapid response efforts ramp up and issue various communications to set the stage as well as prebuttals rebutting points that they expect to be made.  Closer to the debate, the candidates may be seen engaging in public displays of confidence such as throwing a baseball, jogging, or giving a thumbs up. 

Making Sense of the Debates

During the debate, citizens watching on television or the Internet form impressions of the candidates based on their claims, assertions, gaffes or awkward moments and body language.  (People who listen on the radio may form very different impressions).  An ongoing and vibrant discussion unfolds in the social media, as Tweets, Facebook postings and the like amplify key moments.  Not all the claims and assertions are true.  The social media and traditional media will bring misstatements to the fore, but some have argued that a fact checking role should be integrated into the debates as they proceed.  In addition to its work organizing the debates, the CPD has also undertaken efforts to enhance the viewing experience.  Starting in 1996, the CPD ran a Debate Watch program (>) to encourage debate-watching groups around the country.  For 2012 the CPD announced "The Voice Of..." internet initiative (+). 

Spin

The rapid response units go into high gear during and after a debate, working feverishly to produce rebuttals to various claims; these documents are e-mailed out throughout the evening.  Following each debate occurs one of the most unique and fascinating scenes in American politics.  Top campaign staff, campaign surrogates and party leaders gather in the media filing center and spin reporters, telling them what they have just seen.  On opposite sides of the filing center chairs are set up for Democratic and for Republican partisans to do satellite interviews with local stations around the country. 

Media

After the debate pundits and commentators weigh in.  Spin soundbites form an integral part of post-debate coverage.  Many media outlets assemble groups of undecided voters to watch debates and then interview participants for their reactions.  The media also fulfill their fact-checking role.

Third Party Debates

Several third party candidate debates typically occur.  Although C-SPAN does cover some of these, they usually receive virtually no attention.  In 2016 Evan McMullin (I) sought without success to engage the Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson; Johnson, however, had been aiming for the big stage. 

One organization that has done work on third party debates is the Free and Equal Elections Foundation.  Free and Equal organized the People's Presidential Debate, a two-hour forum at University of Colorado Boulder's Macky Auditorium on Oct. 25, 2016, but  only three candidates participated: Darrell Castle (C), Rocky De La Fuente (I) and Gloria LaRiva (PSL).  A more noteworthy forum brought Gary Johnson (L) and Jill Stein (G) together on The Tavis Smiley Show, taped live in Los Angeles on Oct. 31, 2016.

By comparision in 2012 there were several debates involving the major third parties. Free and Equal organized two debates.  The first in Chicago on Oct. 23 brought together Gary Johnson, Virgil Goode, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson (+); Johnson and Stein advanced to the second, in Washington, DC on Nov. 5 (+).  Additionally, Ralph Nader hosted a third party candidate debate with the four candidates in Washington, DC on Nov. 4 (+).

Dates and Locations of Past Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates
2016
Clinton-Trump

Sept. 26, 2016
Hempstead, NY

Oct. 9, 2016
St. Louis, MO

Oct. 19, 2016
Las Vegas, NV

Kaine-Pence
Oct. 4, 2016
Farmville, VA

2012
Obama-Romney

Oct. 3, 2012
Denver, CO

Oct. 16, 2012
Hempstead, NY

Oct. 22, 2012
Boca Raton, FL

Biden-Ryan
Oct. 11, 2012
Danville, KY

2008
McCain-Obama

Sept. 26, 2008
Oxford, MS

Oct. 7, 2008
Nashville, TN

Oct. 15, 2008
Hempstead, NY

Palin-Biden
Oct. 2, 2008
St. Louis, MO

2004
Bush-Kerry
Sept. 30, 2004
Coral Gables, FL
Oct. 8, 2004
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 13, 2004
Tempe, AZ
Cheney-Edwards
Oct. 5, 2004
Cleveland, OH
2000
Gore-Bush
Oct. 3, 2000
Boston, MA
Oct. 11, 2000
Winston-Salem, NC
Oct. 17, 2000
St. Louis, MO
Lieberman-Cheney
Oct. 5, 2000
Danville, KY
1996
Clinton-Dole
Oct. 6, 1996
Hartford, CT
Oct. 16, 1996
San Diego, CA
. Gore-Kemp
Oct. 9, 1996
St. Petersburg, FL
1992
Bush-Clinton-Perot
Oct. 11, 1992
St. Louis, MO
Oct. 15, 1992
Richmond, VA
Oct. 19, 1992
East Lansing, MI 
Quayle-Gore-Stockdale
Oct. 13, 1992
Atlanta, GA
1988
Bush-Dukakis
Sept. 25, 1988
Winston-Salem, NC
Oct. 13, 1988
Los Angeles, CA
. Quayle-Bentsen
Oct. 5, 1988
Omaha, NE
1984
Reagan-Mondale
Oct. 7, 1984
Louisville, KY
Oct. 21, 1984
Kansas City, MO
. Bush-Ferraro
Oct. 11, 1984
Philadelphia, PA
1980
Carter-Reagan-Anderson
Reagan-Anderson
Sept. 21, 1980
Baltimore, MD
Carter-Reagan
Oct. 28, 1980
Cleveland, OH
. none
1976
Ford-Carter
Sept. 23, 1976
Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 6, 1976
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 22, 1976
Williamsburg, VA
Dole-Mondale
Oct. 15, 1976
Houston, TX
1960
Nixon-Kennedy
Sept. 26, 1960 Oct. 7, 1960 Oct. 13, 1960 Oct. 21, 1960
















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