Commission on Presidential Debates

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Commission on Presidential Debates
Commission on Presidential Debates logo.svg
PredecessorLeague of Women Voters (sponsor)
Formation1987; 32 years ago (1987)
TypeNon-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation[1]
PurposeOrganization of the United States presidential and vice-presidential election debates
Executive Director
Janet H. Brown

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a nonprofit corporation established in 1987 under the joint sponsorship of the Democratic and Republican political parties in the United States.[1][2] The CPD sponsors and produces debates for U.S. presidential and vice-presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. It has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988. The Commission's debates are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations.[3]

The Commission's exclusion of third party candidates from the debates has been the subject of controversy and legal challenges.


Debates before the CPD

The first televised presidential debates were held between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign. No general-election debates were done in 1964, and Richard Nixon refused to participate in any debate in 1968 and 1972. Beginning with the 1976 election, the League of Women Voters sponsored the televised Gerald FordJimmy Carter debates, followed by the John B. AndersonRonald Reagan and Reagan–Carter debates for the 1980 election, and Reagan and Walter 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".[2] The CPD was established in 1987 by the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties to "take control of the Presidential debates".[2] 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 Fahrenkopf.[2] 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 Kirk said he personally believed they should be excluded from the debates.[2]

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 lecterns. The League rejected the demands and released a statement saying that it was withdrawing support for the debates because "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."[4]

The CPD has hosted the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 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.[5]


The Commission is headed by former Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and Dorothy S. Ridings. As of 2018, the board of directors consisted of John C. Danforth, Charles Gibson, John Griffen, Jane Harman, Antonia Hernandez, Reverend John I. Jenkins, Jim Lehrer, Michael D. McCurry, Newton N. Minow, Richard D. Parsons, Olympia Snowe and Kenneth Wollack. Janet H. Brown is the current Executive director.[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 has been controversial[8] as it has effectively excluded U.S. parties other than the two major parties.

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 (CPI) labeled the CPD a "secretive tax-exempt organization". The 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 claimed they were taken to a warehouse, and strapped for eight hours to chairs with plastic wrist restraints before being released.[21][22]


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 Federal Election Commission (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 the Federal Election Campaign Act and, in 2005, the D.C. Circuit Court declined to overrule the FEC.[23]

In 2012, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the CPD, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee 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.[24] The case was dismissed in 2014 due to lack of jurisdiction.[25]

In September 2015, the Libertarian and Green parties – along with Johnson and Jill Stein – filed another lawsuit against the CPD, the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, charging violation of federal anti-trust laws.[26][27] The case was dismissed in August 2016.[28][29][30]

On October 5, 2016 a federal court judge agreed to hear oral arguments in a separate lawsuit.[31] The suit challenges the CPD's nonprofit status on the grounds that it is funded by corporate money and favors the two major parties.[32] The Internal Revenue Service allows 501(c)(3) organizations to engage in "voter education activities (including presenting public forums [...]) conducted in a non-partisan manner," provided the activities specifically do not "[favor] a candidate or group of candidates."[33]

In February 2017 the suits by Johnson, Stein et al were reheard and the judge ruled that the Federal Election Commission had not provided sufficient justification for its decision not to engage in rulemaking, and ordered the Commission to either provide a more sufficient justification for its position, or to alter the Commission's rules.[34][35]

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