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Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates Harms Process

by Taylor Tyler, published

Every four years presidential debates are held in the United States, which are no doubt one of the most important and influential aspects of a presidential electoral campaign. Candidate debate performance heavily influences vote results.

Third party candidates have been included in two debate cycles since 1960. All remaining debates have included only two candidates, one Democrat and one Republican.

That fact seems odd when you think about how many other big party candidates such as Libertarian, Green, and Constitution Party members also run for the position of President of the United States. For the 2012 race, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is one of three people who will appear on all 50 state ballots, and has 

Super No Funding Time_ad2polled as high as 19% against Obama. This Wikipedia entry shows that there are at least 15 total candidates running in the upcoming election. Why are none of them invited to the debates? Don’t we, the people, have a right to choose who we want at our presidential debates and to be free of excessive bipartisan control?

Third parties are excluded from debates because the Commission on Presidential Debates, run by Democrats and Republicans, and their established rules for debate inclusion, are the deciding factor for who receives invitation to the debates.

Walter Cronkite spoke on the issue during his time:

The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become. Here is a means to present to the American people a rational exposition of the major issues that face the nation, and the alternate approaches to their solution. Yet the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse. They should be charged with sabotaging the electoral process.

This brings us to the Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD, founded in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties. The CPD is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation as defined by United States federal tax laws and hosts debates which are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations.

The CPD website has listed their mission statement as:

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000,2004 and 2008.

Clearly stating that the CPD was established to ensure that the best possible information is provided to viewers and listeners, I think it's fair to say that they have miserably failed at their mission. Providing the best possible information to viewers would obviously mean inviting more than a single Republican and Democrat candidate to debates.

Regardless of political party affiliation, most people can agree that having more choice is never a bad thing.

Before the CPD was in control, the non-partisan organization The League of Women Voters moderated the 1976, 1980, 1984 debates. They withdrew from the position of debate moderator after the 1988 debates, releasing a press statement after their withdraw which read, “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”‘

They further their stance by saying:

It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

The Commission was then taken over by the Democrats and Republicans to form the current version of the CPD.

Not only are our presidential debates strictly controlled and limited by Democrats and Republicans scared of losing their power to a third party, the CPD is funded by private contributions from corporations and foundations. Who are these corporations and foundations and what interest do they have in the United States Presidential debates?

The CPD has issued a set of eligibility criterion which third party candidates must complete before they are  invited to the debates.

The most concerning rule states:

The CPD’s third criterion requires that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.

The problem with this is that most people tune into the televised national debates to decide which candidate they will vote for. Since the CPD has such stringent rules on debate inclusion, people are left with no choice but to hear the opinions of only two candidates, instead of the five or more that are running for office. It gets even more interesting when you learn that most of the national public opinion polling organizations refuse to include third parties in their polls.

How do candidates have a chance at reaching 15%  in five national polls if they are rarely, if ever, included in the polls?

The Gallup polling agency, one of the largest, remains willfully disingenuous regarding the situation. They included third parties in 

one poll, and came to the conclusion that the “vast majority of Americans prefer Mitt Romney or Obama.” Americans are not adequately exposed to third party candidates and their respective issues, because polling agencies such as Gallup, along with mainstream news agencies, fail to include third party candidates in discussion.

Gallup also refuses to update their 2012 Election web page to include any third party candidate.

Rasmussen, another large national polling agency, has openly acknowledged that they will continue to exclude Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson from their polls, explaining, “experience has shown us that asking about “Some Other Candidate” provides a more accurate view of the race than including third party candidates. Our current polling finds that about 4% to 6% of voters say that they will vote for someone other than Obama or Romney. When we ask them a follow-up question, less than half say they will stick with that third party choice…..Therefore, we have concluded that the most accurate measure of the Obama-Romney race is to leave Johnson’s name out of the mix.”

CNN has been the target of Twitter bombs, real life protests outside of their headquarters, and thousands of phone calls and messages demanding that they include Gary Johnson in their polls and discussions. The leading objective news agency still hasn’t updated their 2012 candidate tracking page to include Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, in the race, and refuses to offer any coverage to third party candidates.

What exactly is going on here? We have the Democrats and Republicans controlling which third party candidates are invited to the debates and controlling debate topics, which are the most important event of the political race, and we are O.K. with this? Why are we complacent when our leading news agencies fail and nearly refuse to include all serious presidential candidates?

It doesn’t seem rational to believe that Democrats and Republicans who are controlling the CPD would be thrilled on the idea of having multiple other presidential candidates debating against them for the job of President of the United States. Two parties are perfect for them — no matter who wins, they all win. Freedom of choice is severely limited at a time when America needs something truly different.  We need access to real choice. Real candidates. We need to take charge and implement a fair system of governing presidential debates. It’s time to get rid of the old system, the CPD, and establish a fair and balanced presidential debate commission run by the people, not the politicians.

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