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This Year’s Presidential Debates Could Look A Lot Different…If They Happen At All


Despite becoming a mainstay of recent presidential elections, debates between the two parties' candidates are a relatively recent phenomena.

With the novel coronavirus surging, furious congressional pandemic response negotiations still underway, and a recent flare-up over whether a president can unilaterally delay an election on which he is a candidate (he can’t), you could be forgiven for forgetting that next month should, under normal circumstances, mark the opening of 2020 campaign debate season.

We were reminded of this fact when the University of Notre Dame announced last week that it will no longer host the first presidential debate, scheduled for September 29. As CNN reported, the event now will take place at Case Western University in Cleveland. The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus already had backed out of hosting the second debate, which will now take place in Miami on October 15. Notre Dame reportedly was worried about how to handle the audience for the event amidst increased numbers of coronavirus cases across the country. Case Western will have an audience but will strictly regulate the size.

With all of the organizational mayhem going on, we thought it might be helpful to look into who handles these debates, how they are organized, and what viewers can expect to see this fall … if anything.

Who Is In Charge Of The Presidential Debates?

Surprise! It’s not the federal government, or the Federal Election Commission, which is tasked under the law for setting the rules for American campaigns and elections. In fact, since 1988 the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization, has served as the debate sponsor and organizer. As its website explains, “The CPD is an independent organization” that “is not controlled by any political party or outside organization, and it does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties.”

It also does not receive any taxpayer funding.

As we explained last summer, and as the CPD also recalls in its summary of its history, consistent meetings of the top presidential contenders are a relatively recent phenomena. According to the CPD, in fact, “General election debates between and among the leading candidates for the office of President of the United States are not required or assured.” John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously went head to head on television in 1960, but for the 12 years after that there were no presidential debates. And, as the CPD tells it, debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984 “were hastily arranged after negotiations between the candidates that left many uncertain whether there would be any debates at all.” The negotiations in the run up to the 1984 presidential election were so perilous, in fact, that it “reinforced a mounting concern that, in any given election, voters could be deprived of the opportunity to observe a debate among the leading candidates for president.”

And that’s how the CPD was born.

Following the 1984 experience—where negotiations about format and the number of debates were still going on just two months before the election—representatives from the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics undertook studies examining the role of debates in the presidential election process. According to the CPD, universities “recommended that the two major political parties endorse a mechanism designed to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that presidential debates between the leading candidates be made a permanent part of the electoral process.”

The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee took it from there, jointly creating the CPD. And you thought the two parties couldn’t agree on anything.

The CPD was then, and still is, governed by a board of directors that includes former lawmakers, members of the news media, and lawyers and election experts. The CPD notes “no sitting officer of either major party has had any affiliation with the CPD, and the major parties have no role whatsoever in running the CPD or setting its policies.” The CPD also is financially independent from the parties. And since it does not receive money from the federal government either, the CPD relies on support “from the communities that host the debates and, to a lesser extent, from corporate, foundation and private donors.”

The CPD is in charge of deciding who gets to walk onto the debate stage, applying a “nonpartisan candidate selection criteria in the final weeks of a long general election campaign.” Under Federal Election Commission rules, the CPD also must make its candidate selections on the basis of “pre-established, objective” criteria.

A key factor in this decision: how much public support a candidate has. Under the rules adopted for 2020, to be invited to the fall presidential debates, a candidate must:

· Be constitutionally eligible to hold the office of president of the United States;

· Appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College; and

· Have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination. (The CPD has used this polling threshold since 2000. As the CPD explains, before 2000 it conducted its own analysis of polls.)

Even major party candidates must hit these markers to be invited to the debate stage. The CPD specifically notes, “the major party nominees’ eligibility to debate is determined by the same standards applicable to all declared candidates.” (Of course, since the CPD took over in 1988, no major party candidate has not met the CPD threshold for support.)

The CPD makes its decision about who qualifies after Labor Day in each presidential year, but we know that this year’s announcement won’t be a surprise. The only two individuals who fit those qualifications are President Donald Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. (Sorry, Kanye.) The CPD also plans to hold a single debate between the two chosen vice-presidential candidates.

What Will The Debates Look Like This Year?

As the CPD explains, the debate format has evolved somewhat over the last 32 years. Most debates include a moderator, and three journalist panelists asking questions to the candidates. In 1992, the CPD introduced the town hall format, which allows voters to ask questions directly to the candidates. (There is still a moderator.) The townhall meeting debate is “made up of approximately 100 citizens chosen by the Gallup organization as undecided voters from the metropolitan area of the debate site.”

The CPD is still planning to use the town hall format for the second presidential debate of 2020 but one has to imagine, given the pandemic, the possibility of the country’s first virtual town hall presidential debate. When Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden met for their final primary debate in March, very early on in the pandemic, the event was hastily moved to avoid the candidates having to travel a long distance and there was no audience. And there were no handshakes between the candidates. In fact, whether the candidates will even sit or stand across from each other this fall also certainly will be up for … debate.

Debate moderators are chosen by the CPD “several weeks before the debates” and are decided based on:

· Familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign;

· Extensive experience in live television broadcast news; and

· An understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views.

Moderators have not yet been chosen and, no surprise, some voices on both the right and the left are already arguing that journalists from major networks should not be qualified based on perceived biases towards one of the two candidates who will be on the ballot.

Wait … Are We Sure There Will Be Debates This Year?

Given the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame’s decisions, the critics, and the ongoing pandemic, this question is a reasonable one. And, as the CPD notes in its summary of its history and its process, “candidates for federal office are not required to debate. The CPD also warns, “[H]istory teaches that it is speculative at best to assume that the leading candidates would agree to share the stage ...”

Is there precedent for a major party candidate note showing up?

Yes, there is. As the History Channel recalls, in 1980 sitting President Jimmy Carter “refused to participate in any debate that included both Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson, so the incumbent was missing when his two opponents took to the stage on September 21, 1980.”

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