Let’s have an honest debate on the debates

Political debates matter.  They can alter the course of a campaign, propel a candidate or an idea, and provide voters an unfiltered window into how potential leaders handle tough situations.  For the last six months, there has been a significant conversation over the state of the general election presidential debates and the role that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) plays in maintaining the two-party duopoly that is so fiercely protected by the Republican and Democratic parties. 

From the first moments of this conversation, the debate over the debates has been characterized by misinformation from the CPD in order to make it appear to be a nonpartisan organization.  Perhaps they should be renamed the Commission on Partisan Debates.   

{mosads}In particular, there are three untruths that the CPD is perpetuating that, in order for there to be an honest debate over the inclusion of a non-major party candidate, must be dispelled.  

First, in a recent interview on C-SPAN, Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman and co-founder of the CPD, said that Ross Perot qualified for the 1992 debates using the candidate selection criteria the CPD had in place in 1992. Fahrenkopf failed to say that the Commission changed their rules to keep that from happening again. Perot would not have qualified for the 1992 debates had the current rule — requiring a candidate to average 15 percent in the polls a couple of weeks before the debates — been in place. 

One of our friends and colleagues, the late Richard Neustadt of Harvard University, is singled out by the CPD as an author of the debate rules. In his letters and conversations, Professor Neustadt was deeply skeptical of third parties, arguing that they could lead to polarization and division.  That was a reasonable worry, but the world has changed, and today’s two-party duopoly has succeeded in shutting out moderates.  To point to Ross Perot’s presence in the 1992 debates as a defense of the current system is intellectually dishonest.   

The current rule, which the CPD created in 2000, is biased and unfair. We have sent the Commission evidence showing that since 1960, not a single candidate who did not run in a major party primary has polled at 15 percent in mid-September, when the polls must be taken according to the CPD’s current rule.   

The CPD’s rule creates a classic chicken-and-egg problem: a candidate cannot achieve 15 percent in a national poll without money and media coverage, but raising money and garnering media coverage is effectively impossible if potential donors and reporters don’t believe that a candidate will have a seat at the table during the general election debates.  Invitations to the debate must be determined by April of the election year in order to level the media and fundraising playing field and make the process fair to all candidates. 

Second, Fahrenkopf and his co-chair, Mike McCurry, wrote in a recent Politico op-ed that the 15 percent polling requirement “is the same used by the League of Women Voters in 1980 when the League included John Anderson in the debates.” It is very telling that both John Anderson and the League of Women Voters want the Commission to change the rules. They both know how unfair and arbitrary the 15 percent rule is.


John Anderson was a recognizable name in the 1980 General Election because he had already run in the Republican primary. New research shows that it is effectively impossible for an independent candidate who does not run in a major party primary to gain the 15 percent necessary to qualify for the debates. In today’s partisan environment, where the primaries are  dominated by the fringes of both parties, many qualified candidates will not want to run if their only option is through those primaries. The current rule gives them no other option. That is wrong. 

Third, that same op-ed states that the CPD “does not endorse, support or oppose any political candidates or parties” and the CPD’s directors are “firmly committed to the non- partisan…mission of the CPD.” However, numerous CPD directors, including both the co-chairs, have publicly endorsed or contributed to Republican or Democratic candidates for president. Some have even headlined fundraisers for candidates in the 2016 campaign. How can the CPD design rules that are fair to independent candidates in 2016 when many of its board members are involved with candidates of the two major parties? 

Discontent with government is at its highest point since World War II and interest in the elections is at a record low. Our political system has become more polarized and dysfunctional and the public, rightly, believes that the two-party system is failing them.  A record 43 percent of Americans identify as independents, and 62 percent say that they would vote for an independent in 2016. 

Reforms that we have suggested to the CPD would break the two-party duopoly that the Commission has been perpetuating since 1987. We are still waiting for their constructive reply. Ending this two party hammerlock on our democracy would finally give the American people what they are so clearly asking for: a real opportunity to vote for a candidate who speaks to their issues, not the parochial concerns of the Democratic or Republican Party. 

Unfortunately, the organization that is in charge of our presidential debates refuses, ironic as it may be, to have an honest debate.


Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University. King is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at The Harvard Kennedy School.  Both are signatories to the Change the Rule campaign.

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