An Interesting History of Presidential Debates

By Joey Marra


A new FCC ruling extends “equal time” provisions to presidential debates. As a matter of practicality, this largely necessitates presidential debates be hosted by a neutral third-party.


The nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) steps in to be that neutral party and to ultimately host the first televised presidential debate in nearly twenty years. They go on to host debates through 1984 with the goal of informing the American voter via a nonpartisan platform utilizing lively debate formats and inclusion of third-party and independent candidates.


In opposition to their inclusion of an independent candidate, President Carter declines the LWV’s invitation to the second debate of the year. Despite the lack of appearance by the sitting president, true to its principles, the LWV goes on with the debate, honoring their invitations to Ronald Reagan and independent candidate, John Anderson. Jimmy Carter goes on to lose the election to Ronald Reagan, with Carter’s absence at the debate noted as a major factor in Reagan’s success. The Democratic and Republican parties get their first taste of the influence of the relatively new, neutrally hosted, televised debates. It is also apparent that the presence of an independent candidate is what kept the debate alive, even when a sitting president chose to opt out. Simply declining to participate is not a viable option.


The Democratic and Republican parties begin to work together to remove risk from the LWV’s debates by jointly vetoing nearly 100 panelists proposed by the LWV for the ‘84 debates.


The non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is formed with the intent of taking control of the presidential debates. It is formed by the two heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, chaired by those same two men, and is staffed by members of both parties. At the time, one of the founders stated that the new CPD was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates, while the other stated plainly that the panel should exclude them. Despite its formation, founding members, staffing, and the statements of its founders, the CPD describes itself as “nonpartisan” to this day.


In an attempt to wrangle control from the LWV, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns meet without the knowledge of the LWV to draft a “memorandum of understanding” outlining their requirements for participation in the 1988 debates. This document removes all control from the LWV. It specifies who would be panelists, who could sit in the audience, removed follow-up questions from the format, and more. It is presented to the LWV as “take it or leave it.” The LWV loudly “leaves it,” stating that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” Upon resignation of the LWV, the months-old D&R-formed CPD steps in to take over the debates as their “nonpartisan” sponsor and host.


Ross Perot, then polling at 7%, is included in the CPD’s debates. After what is largely considered impressive debate performances, Ross Perot goes on to receive 19% of the popular vote on election day. This is considered to be a remarkable achievement and the largest post-debate increase ever seen.


Although in the running again and on the ballot in all 50 states, the CPD does not invite Ross Perot to the 1996 debates.


The CPD establishes a rule that, in order to be included in the debates, a candidate must achieve an average of 15% in five national polls. Although sounding somewhat reasonable on the surface, there are major criticisms of this rule: (1) The CPD alone chooses which polls will be used each election cycle. (2) The polls are routinely chosen only after they have published their polling results. (3) Nearly all polls used do not mention the names of any candidates other than those of the Democratic and Republican parties. That is, in order to meet the CPD’s criteria, a third-party candidate must average 15% in polls where their name is not even mentioned and where the CPD already knows the results.

1996 – 2020

Despite multiple candidates appearing on the ballots in all 50 states, no third-party nor independent candidates are invited to a CPD debate. Ross Perot’s appearance in 1992 is the last.

Multiple lawsuits are brought against the CPD for various reasons including violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act, violation of Federal Antitrust Laws, and challenges to its non-profit status. Thus far, none of these lawsuits have been successful.


We’ve been cheated. For over three decades, the Democratic and Republican parties have effectively worked together to limit the choices of the American voter while failing to work together in Congress on issues such as the national debt, our nation’s security, and much more. They are showing us where their priorities lie.

Not only are they actively silencing the voices of viable candidates and stifling the competition of ideas that benefits us all regardless of political affiliation, they also continue to perpetuate the lie that voting outside of their chosen candidates is a “wasted vote.” This implies that prioritizing your values and supporting a candidate that you feel could better help the nation is somehow a waste. Just like the curated debates, this is simply another dishonest campaign tool with the goal of concentrating attention and support where actively funnel it. Those of us disappointed and disenfranchised by the Democrats and Republicans make up the VAST MAJORITY of voters – mathematically, the two parties simply can’t beat the numbers, so instead they deceive and mislead. Or, as the LWV warned us decades ago, they knowingly “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Thirty years later, it’s the same as it ever was. Despite the majority of Americans routinely expressing the need for more party options, despite more and more Americans not identifying as either Republican or Democrat, despite being on the ballot in all 50 states, and despite the majority of Americans agreeing with 60-70% of her platform, Libertarian candidate Dr. Jo Jorgensen is not named in any of the five polls chosen by the CPD for debate inclusion and has not been invited to the CPD’s 2020 presidential debates.

YOU can do the work, though. YOU don’t have to approach this election wearing the blinders that the old parties have handed you. Research Dr. Jorgensen. Read her platform. Watch her videos. See if her ideas resonate with you; then talk to your friends and family and let them know that there is a better way. We all deserve better. Demand better. Be part of the growing momentum that ultimately rids us of the ever-worsening status quo and leads us to better candidates, better choices, and better lives.

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