To most of us the presidential debates seem like a politico-elemental force of nature. They happen, three of them, every four years. The VP would-be’s get one, too.
Your television has been yelling at you about the debates for days; you probably know quite well by now what Mitt Romney has to do in order to regain the lead in the polls. CNN is already in Denver, doing stories about how they’re going to be doing the story about the debates. We know today’s debate will rule the news cycle, we know the subsequent analysis will be never-ending. But beyond that, how do they happen? And why? And who makes the rules?
The big boss of the debate circus is called the Commission on the Presidential Debates. Proud owner of the primo web real estate www.debates.org, the CPD hasn’t bothered to change its homepage for four years. Visit now, and it looks like this:
It’s the only trace left of Sarah Palin on the internet.
The CPD, which most of us have probably never even heard of, is also the organization that is indirectly or directly derided every time an American wonders why “they” don’t let more than two candidates in the room. It’s because the CPD, which turns out to be an opaque organization run by former chairmen of both the Republican and Democratic parties, has only three criteria for anyone hoping to join the presidential debates:
1. You must be an American citizen and otherwise be eligible to become president of the United States.
2. You must “have achieved ballot access in a sufficient number of states to win a theoretical Electoral College majority in the general election.” And finally,
3. You must “have demonstrated a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate.”
The Commission was hastily founded in 1988, after the League of Women Voters, the nonprofit, nonpartisan political organization that had overseen each of the presidential debates except the first, publicly withdrew support. The LWV refused to agree to a memorandum, forged in secret by the Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush campaigns, that outlined a more stringently controlled debate environment that meant, among other things, no more hardballs. The group released a fiery statement chastising both parties for infringing on the democratic process.
“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” the League’s president said.
The honchos in the Democratic and Republican parties shrugged. The chairmen of each appointed new leaders to run what would be thenceforth called the Commission for Presidential Debates, adhering to the new, more candidate-friendly platform, and the same body has organized every debate since 1988.
Technically, the Commission is a 501©(3) non-profit corporation, but it’s a very strange one, and far from transparent. These days, when its name surfaces at all, it’s typically because it is being accused of working to prop up the two-party system or to consolidates power amongst the Republicans and Democrats. And that’s largely because in addition to the CPD’s criteria for entry being rather draconian, it’s arbitrarily interpreted, too: Ross Perot was denied entry into the debates the second time he ran as an Independent in 1996, despite garnering 19% support at the polls at the time. Critics speculated he was boxed out so that he wouldn’t siphon votes away from Republicans.
Critics also wonder who actually pays for the CPD’s operating costs. The Center for Policy Integrity discovered that in 2008, there were just six donors, all of them kept anonymous by the CPD — those who donate to 501©(3)s don’t have to disclose their identities. The CPD’s donors don’t, so no one knows who they are, or why they take it upon themselves to bankroll the two-party debates. We do know that a handful of corporations help sponsor the events themselves. In exchange for cash donations ranging between $250,000 and $500,000, companies get to hang banners in the line of sight during televised segments or hand out fliers to the political elites attending the event itself.
Here are the listed sponsors of the 2012 presidential debates, from the CPD’s website:
- Anheuser-Busch Companies
- The Howard G. Buffet Foundation
- Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq.
- Crowell & Moring LLP
- International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)
- The Kovler Fund
- Southwest Airlines
In addition to running the four big ticket debates, the CPD also apparently does some pro bono international consulting. According to its website, it has helped the following nations develop “a debate tradition”: Bosnia, Burundi, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Peru, Romania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and the Ukraine.
So the supposedly neutral nonprofit organization that runs the presidential debates in fact boasts a rather colorful history and a couple well-guarded secrets. Or, as the Center for Policy Integrity puts it, it’s a “corporate funded” and “secretive tax-exempt organization, created and run by former chairmen of the two major parties, funded by a small group of unidentified major donors, and designed, it seems, to exclude nearly all third-party candidates.”
There you have it — the mostly invisible group organizing the debates is much more interesting than anything either candidate is likely to say during the lot of them.