Did the Major Party Campaigns Just End the Commission on Presidential Debates?

Trump-Biden Debate
Created: 15 May, 2024
Updated: 17 May, 2024
6 min read

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes / Flickr


President Joe Biden’s campaign issued a challenge to former President Donald Trump Wednesday to two debates: One in June and one in September. The debates have to be hosted by a news outlet and will not be conducted in front of a crowd.

Shortly after, Trump accepted the proposal – indicating that he too was eager to debate, though he would like to see more debates and would prefer there to be a crowd. 

The two debates Biden wants to have with Trump will only be hosted by a major news outlet. Specifically, Biden’s campaign made the stipulation that it had to be a network that hosted a 2016 GOP primary debate and a 2020 Democratic primary debate.

CNN extended an invite to the Biden campaign for a June 27 debate. The campaign accepted the invitation – which promoted Trump to accept as well.

The news spread quickly over national news outlets. However, the deeper implications of this move will likely be overlooked (or ignored) by the press: By taking over the debates, the major party campaigns have eliminated any prospect of a third candidate on the debate stage.

In fact, that was one of the stipulations made by the Biden campaign for the 2024 debates. 

The Washington Post reports:

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"The Biden proposal, outlined in a video message and letter to the commission, called for direct negotiations between the Trump and Biden campaigns over the rules, moderators and network hosts for the one-on-one encounters. Biden proposed a separate vice-presidential debate in July, after the Republican nominating convention and before the Democratic nominating convention."

Is This the End of the Commission on Presidential Debates?

Both major party campaigns have expressed discontent with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Trump and the RNC have accused the CPD of Democratic favoritism, and Biden’s campaign doesn’t think the CPD does enough to enforce debate etiquette.

Specifically, it has no faith that the commission will have strict enough rules that prevent Trump from interrupting their candidate. 

Biden’s campaign reportedly wrote a letter to the commission making it clear the president won’t take part in a CPD debate. The major party campaigns will negotiate the date, stage, and rules for the debates with the hosting news outlets.

In other words, the CPD has been shut out of the debates entirely – setting a precedent in presidential campaigns that could mean the end of the commission completely. 

The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 as a way for the two major parties to effectively take over debate sponsorship. It was founded by then RNC chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then DNC chair Paul Kirk. 

It took over sponsorship in the 1988 presidential election cycle after the League of Women Voters refused to co-sponsor them with a group the League said was perpetuating “a fraud on the American voter.”

The League asserted that the debate commission gave too much control over the format and rules to the parties and their campaigns, which denies voters an opportunity to see the candidates outside a controlled campaign environment.

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What the LWV predicted would happen came true: Every presidential debate since 1988 has effectively been an endorsement of two-party control over presidential elections.

LEARN MORE: Everything You Need to Know About the Commission on Presidential Debates

There has only been one debate in modern history that has had more than two candidates on the debate stage. Ross Perot joined George HW Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992. However, after Perot garnered 19% of the vote, the CPD re-evaluated its rules for debate inclusion.

Perot was not invited back to debate in 1996, despite his showing in the previous election, and in 2000 the CPD established new rules – the most consequential being a 15% rule that required candidates to poll at 15% nationally in 5 polls handpicked by the commission. 

This has made it all but impossible for independent and third-party campaigns to qualify for debate access because these candidates often lack sufficient name ID and/or media presence to build up their polling numbers.

The CPD has been so committed to its endorsement of the Republican and Democratic nominees that it has had independent and third-party candidates arrested for being in or around the venue of a presidential debate.

However, all of this is not enough for the Biden and Trump campaigns. They want full control over the debates. 

Why 2024 Is Different

There has been more focus on independent and third-party candidates in the 2024 presidential election cycle than any other election in modern history. This is largely due to two reasons:

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(1) Voter discontent with the major parties and the choices they are given each election cycle and (2) the presence of Robert F Kennedy Jr who has both money and name ID to have a major impact on the election.

The DNC is nervous about Kennedy and has actively tried to block his access to the ballot in states across the US. Trump has also increased his attacks on Kennedy after polls show Kennedy could pull just as many voters from him as he would Biden. 

Kennedy is polling high enough among voters both in favorability and support that he is close to a 15% average in 5 national polls – which would mean he’d be debate eligible under the CPD’s rules.

That is, if the CPD honored its rules. 

The debate commission had the first debate of the 2024 cycle scheduled for September 16, but both Trump and Biden wanted earlier debates and only two candidates on the debate stage.

Their campaigns started to collude on ways to sidestep the debate commission. And now, they have.

The Biden campaign sent a letter to the CPD in which campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon made it clear that the campaign was ditching the debate commission and Biden was not going to participate in its fall debates.

“We are advising you now of this decision, months in advance of the dates you announced you are planning for, to enable you to avoid incurring further production, and other expenses on the assumption that the Democratic nominee, President Biden, will participate,” the letter states.

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“He will not.”

The major party campaigns, instead, will stipulate the rules – one of which is the two debates Trump and Biden will participate in will be one-on-one. This prompted a reaction from Robert F Kennedy Jr on social media

“Presidents Trump and Biden are colluding to lock America into a head-to-head match-up that 70% say they do not want,” he said. 

“They are trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win. Keeping viable candidates off the debate stage undermines democracy.

Forty-three percent of Americans identify as independents. If Americans are ever going to escape the hammerlock of the two-party system, now is the time to do it. These are the two most unpopular candidates in living memory.

By excluding me from the stage, Presidents Biden and Trump seek to avoid discussion of their eight years of mutual failure including deficits, wars, lockdowns, chronic disease, and inflation.”

The collusion by the major party campaigns also raises the possibility that this is what the future of presidential debates will look like – rendering the debate commission obsolete as a means of protecting the major parties’ entitlement and control over presidential elections. 

In order to remain relevant, the CPD will have to change its rules, which will likely mean doubling down on the two-party duopoly in a way that will guarantee voters will never have more choice in future elections.

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