Our goal before Election Day: A vigorous debate

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do not agree about much, but one thing they do have in common is the belief that their face-to-face debates, beginning Wednesday night0, could change the tone of the campaign, produce new reasons for voters to support or reject their candidacies and ultimately have some real impact on the final result. That’s as it should be. Presidential debates have now become an institutionalized part of the fall general election campaign.

It has not always been so. From the famous first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960 until 1976, presidential candidates did not always see it as being in their interest to face each another in front of the American public on TV. Even when debates returned, there was usually some haggling and negotiating as the campaigns conducted a “debate about debates,” and as a result there was no guarantee that the candidates would actually participate.

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In the late 1980s, two influential academic studies at Harvard and Georgetown universities made the case that voters needed the benefit of an organized way to watch the major candidates for president address each other in a dignified setting that would allow for real answers to the questions Americans wanted to hear asked. The two chairmen of the major political parties at the time — Paul Kirk for the Democrats and Frank Fahrenkopf for the Republicans — took it on themselves to help create an independent, nonpartisan commission to sponsor and organize fall general election debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has been at it ever since.

Formats have evolved, traditions have been established and candidates for the presidency have ultimately concluded that the voters do deserve an opportunity to see them in a live, unrehearsed exchange that will shed light on where they would propose to lead our nation. This time around, Obama and Romney both affirmed the importance of the debates by quickly agreeing to participate, along with their running mates, in the debates that begin tonight in Denver. Both were invited recently after the CPD applied its pre-established, objective criteria for participation that has stood up well over time: candidates, regardless of party affiliation, must be eligible for the office, must have ballot access sufficient to win an Electoral College majority and must demonstrate support from at least 15 percent of the voting population in a credible range of national polls.

The Debates Commission thought long and hard about two matters vital to keeping the traditional debates vibrant and informative for the voters who listen, watch and engage. How can the format best produce real discussion about the issues most on the minds of voters? And how can the amazing resources of the Internet and the new media augment the traditional televised broadcast?

On format, we have suggested something new. Instead of a highly regulated format where candidates have 90 seconds to respond to a question and 30 seconds to rebut, we have given moderators flexibility to divide a 90-minute debate into six separate 15-minute sections that will allow for a more free-flowing and engaging discussion. Jim Lehrer, the venerable moderator that we have selected for tonight’s first debate at the University of Denver, has announced that his debate topics will be the economy, the economy and the economy for the first 45 minutes, followed by three separate sections on healthcare, the role of government and governing. It does not take a lot of imagination to guess that this will produce a lively discussion on the things most Americans are considering as they prepare to vote. The exact questions and how they will be phrased, however, are only known to the moderators. The commission gives the outstanding journalists we have selected sole discretion on the content of the questioning.

The second presidential debate will be held Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in New York and will follow a “town-hall format.” Candy Crowley from CNN will moderate and draw on questions from a panel of undecided voters selected by our partner, the Gallup organization. The final presidential debate, to be held Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., will focus on foreign policy and international issues, moderated by Bob Scheiffer of CBS. A vice presidential debate will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC on Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

In and around the debates, the CPD is working with a coalition of Internet companies — Google, AOL, and Yahoo — and other social media companies to create a “season of conversation” on the Web that will give citizens opportunities to learn more about the debates, chime in with their own suggested questions and comment on what the candidates have to say. We hope that the more flexible format and the outreach to “netizens” via the Internet will make the debates of 2012 more interesting and accessible than ever before.

McCurry and Fahrenkopf are co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates.