Several weeks ago, I turned on C-SPAN to watch archived footage of one of the 1976 Presidential Debates between then-President Gerald Ford and then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.  Aside from its “retro aesthetics,” the differences between that forum and the presidential debates of the modern era were striking.  They also reinforced what I’ve believed for a long time:  the current process for determining which presidential candidates are allowed to debate is counterproductive, overly-sectarian, and in desperate need of reform.

While viewing that Ford/Carter debate, I found myself genuinely conflicted over who I would have voted for, had I been alive during that time period.  Ford had better positions on government spending and job creation.  Carter articulated a better vision for energy policy and streamlining bureaucracy.  Both men – while obviously disagreeing with each other and challenging his opponent’s assertions – were, by and large, respectful and dignified toward one another.

They lacked the hyperbole and theatrics that we’ve tended to witness in presidential debates throughout the past two or three decades.  Their debates also might have had even more substance if Libertarian Party nominee Roger MacBride and Independent liberal candidate Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with conservative U.S. Senator and chronic instigator Joe McCarthy) had been included.

To understand why presidential debates are the way they are in the modern era, we must look at their history.

Up through the 1984 election, the League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored the debates.  As a consequence, candidates were generally not allowed to interrupt each other or directly ask questions of their opponents.  All of that changed in 1987, when the Commission on Presidential Debates was created by the two major parties.  Paul G. Kirk Jr. and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the DNC Chair and RNC Chair, respectively, at the time, described these newly-conceived debates as bipartisan and nonprofit; they also blatantly stated how they didn’t foresee any scenario where presidential nominees from third parties would qualify for inclusion.  Among their other criticisms of the prior LWV-sponsored forums were that those debates had become “staid” and gave the nominees no opportunities to question each other.

Then-President of the League of Women Voters, Nancy M. Neuman, criticized this transparent power grab – but, ultimately, both the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns agreed to participate in these debates hosted by the newly-formed commission (obviously at the bequest of their parties’ chairmen).  This is what caused the League of Women Voters to be shut out of the process…and has resulted in the toxic and exclusionary ambiances of televised debates for the past eight presidential election cycles.

My own suspicion is that, after Independent presidential candidate John Anderson received 7% of the national popular vote against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Bush and Dukakis campaigns were both hyper-paranoid about the thought of a so-called “spoiler candidate” coming in and tilting the entire election toward their opponent.  In fact, Carter had outright refused to debate Anderson in person; the 1980 debate in which Anderson had been included was a two-man exchange between Anderson and Reagan.  The complete electoral blowout of Walter Mondale by Reagan in 1984 surely exacerbated this fear from the Dukakis camp’s perspective.  Interestingly enough, both Reagan and Mondale had vetoed copious suggestions of debate moderators from the LWV during the ’84 presidential election cycle.

Furthermore, I suspect that advance men from the Bush and Dukakis campaigns foresaw the potential buzz that Libertarian Party presidential nominee Ron Paul (yes, he even ran back in the late-80s!) and New Alliance Party nominee Lenora Fulani could have generated, had either Paul and/or Fulani been allowed access into the debates during the 1988 cycle.  And so the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee conspired to solidify their duopoly over the national discourse via their new bipartisan commission.

The one notable exception to this came, four years later, when Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot polled well enough to qualify for entrance into the debates against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and then-challenger Bill Clinton.  After receiving almost 19% of the popular vote in 1992 (albeit no accompanying electoral votes), 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole requested that Perot be excluded from the ’96 debates against incumbent President Bill Clinton.

After being locked out of the 1996 debates, Perot – running under the newly-formed Reform Party banner – saw his popular vote share drop to a mere 8% in that General Election; however, it was still enough for him to qualify the Reform Party for federal matching funds to go toward the next presidential election (an opportunity which, in 2000, was promptly sabotaged by Pat Buchanan).

The problem, as pointed out by progressive activist and blogger Jacqueline Mary, is that pundits have been increasingly conflating the term “bipartisan” with the term “nonpartisan.”  

If you look at the composition of the current Commission on Presidential Debates: its Board of Directors is made up of four Republicans (John C. Danforth, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., Richard D. Parsons, and Olympia Snowe), four Democrats (Jane Harman, Newton N. Minow, Dorothy S. Ridings, and Shirley M. Tilghman), and six unaffiliated members (Howard G. Buffett, Charles Gibson, John Griffen, Antonia Hernandez, Reverend John I. Jenkins, and Jim Lehrer).  That means nearly 60% of this Board of Directors are individuals with overt partisan associations (by virtue of their past office-holding, partisan activities, or political appointments).

Then, we could add in Fahrenkopf (a current co-chairman), Kirk (now a co-chairman emeritus), and former Clinton Administration press secretary Michael D. McCurry (the other current co-chairman).  The CPD’s Executive Director, Janet H. Brown, is a mysterious, elusive figure with ties to the Nixon and Reagan Administrations.  That increases the percentage of CPD members with partisan histories to two-thirds!

Having a commission with merely one-third of its membership as party-unaffiliated members does NOT, by definition, make the CPD “nonpartisan.”  It’s more accurate to say that the CPD is “bipartisan” since 66% of its leadership, arguably, have Democratic or Republican loyalties.  

But it isn’t “nonpartisan.”  That word is thrown around like an empty compliment in order to convince Americans that no nefarious agenda exists behind the CPD.  Or, it’s used as a moniker for people to rationalize to themselves that the CPD is somehow NOT inherently flawed.

Beyond that misnomer, no one seems to know who exactly appoints the CPD’s board.  Presumably, it’s the RNC and DNC Chairs and other members of their parties’ leadership.  But the lack of transparency as to how this commission gets handpicked is, at best, troubling.

Speaking of transparency, the CPD’s own constructed guidelines for inclusion into the presidential debates are also suspect.  Its initial eligibility requirements are reasonable enough:  you must be constitutionally-eligible to run for the presidency, and have made it onto the ballot in enough states to hypothetically achieve a 270-vote electoral victory.

Fair enough.  But the CPD’s third category for eligibility, “Indicators of Electoral Support,” gets far murkier.  The commission has determined that – in order to be invited into the debates – a presidential candidate must have a polling average of at least 15% support across five pre-selected national polls.  Yet, despite this year’s 15% threshold having been announced in October 2015, the actual five major polls used to measure that threshold weren’t selected until ten months later; on Aug. 15 (slightly more than one month before the first debates), the CPD finally announced which specific polls it would actually be using.

Political blogger John Laurits surveyed the five CPD-selected polls, which were commissioned by:  ABC-Washington Post, CBS-New York Times, CNN-Opinion Research Corporation, Fox News, and NBC-Wall Street Journal.  Laurits observes that these news networks and editorial outlets are full of people who’ve contributed to Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns by way of dollars and/or free airtime.  Incidentally, the NBC-WSJ outlet hadn’t appeared to have published any new polling between the dates of Aug. 15 and Sep. 20.

Out of the other four major polls used by the CPD, Laurits found some disturbing shards of impartiality.  The Fox News polls, not surprisingly, have been lopsided in their overrepresentation of conservative voters – while blatantly excluding Jill Stein from even being a respondent’s option.  The CNN-ORC polling underrepresented people 18-34 years of age.  ABC-WP uses an abnormally small sample size, while refusing to disclose its polls’ weighting or demographics.  And CBS-NYT (along with excluding Stein as a polling option) oversampled people who had voted in their states’ partisan primaries.

Stein, as well as Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, have called to be included alongside of Clinton and Trump in this year’s presidential debates; their supporters have echoed these third-party candidates’ sentiments.  Peter Ackerman, a millionaire financier, leads a bipartisan advocacy group – known as “Level the Playing Field” – which has criticized the CPD for engaging in secretive deliberations that lack transparency.  Ackerman’s group speculates on internal disagreement within the CPD itself based on the limited self-disclosure with which the CPD has bothered to furnish the public.

High-profile members of “Level the Playing Field” include Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman (hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day!), and Bruce Babbitt.  Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – while simultaneously endorsing Clinton – has called upon the CPD to lower the 15% threshold.  Johnson, meanwhile, has proposed changing the criteria to eliminate the polling threshold entirely while basing inclusion solely on constitutional eligibility and whether a candidate has achieved ballot access in all fifty states.

Not surprisingly, that Gary Johnson proposal – under current circumstances – would include only him alongside of Trump and Clinton, while excluding Stein (who is only eligible to appear on the ballot in 47 states).  Isn’t it funny how, when Gary Johnson calls for new debate criteria, he makes a pitch for only himself to be allowed to take on Clinton and Trump?  By contrast, when Jill Stein calls for new debate criteria, she routinely makes it a point to include references to both herself as well as Johnson alongside Clinton and Trump.

So how would retooled debate criteria prevent a scenario where we have a dozen or more third-party presidential candidates up on stage next to the Democratic and Republican contenders?  Well, contrary to what pro-CPD shills would have us believe, no one is proposing that the presidential debates be a complete free-for-all.  However, there are some very simple yet reasonable reforms that could be put in place.

First of all, I personally don’t believe any members of the CPD should be former lawmakers or other individuals with a paper trail of partisan loyalties – be it via having held elected office, receiving past political appointments, being party organizers, publicly endorsing past candidates for political office, or anyone who has donated to past political campaigns.  In an ideal world, the CPD should be composed entirely of truly nonpartisan individuals who refrain from wearing their ideological stripes on their sleeves.

Then again, this may not be realistic.   So, what about a modest compromise? – the RNC and DNC Chair could each appoint three members of the CPD’s Board of Directors, while the League of Women Voters gets to rejoin the fray and appoint the other ten board members – none of whom may have any history of declared political affiliations.

Next up:  the 15% threshold.  I see no reason why 15% should suddenly be this magical number where a candidate is suddenly worthy of being allowed to debate.  Why not 10% or 20%, if the line has to be drawn somewhere?

This past summer, I was at a social event (hosted by my fraternity) where we were discussing this exact issue.  One of my fraternity brothers had essentially drunk the CPD Kool-Aid, declaring how 15% was “a good number.”  Of course, he had no specific rationale for why exactly it was such a “good number”…nor has the CPD itself provided the public with any corresponding explanation.  That fraternity brother of mine, in fact, had also regurgitated the mantra that the CPD is supposedly “nonpartisan.”

In fact, political commentator and stand-up comedian Jimmy Dore opines that the CPD presumably obtained that 15% number from “really far up their asses.  It just goes to show, as Donald Trump regularly does, how if you repeat something enough times – such as the CPD being “nonpartisan” – then people will actually begin to believe it.

But, for those who actually want to examine our options critically:  there are a handful of other alternatives to the 15% threshold status quo.  For example, third-party candidates could become eligible for inclusion in the debates if their party’s previous presidential nominee had increased his or her popular vote total by 200% or more over that party’s nominee from four years before that.  For example, when Stein ran as the Green presidential nominee in 2012, she’d improved upon 2008 Green nominee Cynthia McKinney’s overall popular vote total by more than 290%.  And when Johnson ran as the Libertarian presidential nominee that same year, he’d improved upon 2008 Libertarian nominee Bob Barr’s overall popular vote total by more than 240%.

So, perhaps if you can improve upon your party’s overall presidential vote tally by, say, 200% or more – it will mean your party’s presidential nominee gets to appear in the debates four years later.  And, this 200% popular vote threshold could also be waived if your party’s presidential nominee makes it onto the ballot in all fifty states (so that the Democratic and Republican nominees would still be included).

Another replacement for the arbitrary 15% polling threshold could be if the CPD requested “approval polls” to be conducted by major outlets far in advance of the October debates.  These approval polls could ask a simple question such as, “If a constitutionally-eligible presidential candidate is on the ballot in enough states to receive an electoral college victory, should that candidate be invited to the debates?”  If a critical mass (say, 75% of respondents) answer “YES” (as opposed to “NO”) across an average of five pre-selected polls, those candidates will be included in the debates.

Alternately, rather than using questionable polling results, the CPD could require all constitutionally-eligible presidential party nominees – only those who have some hypothetical path to an electoral college victory – to apply for entrance into the debates via mass-petition.  The threshold could be receiving a minimum of, for example, five-million signatures from Americans.  The biggest challenge with this option would be centrally tabulating, and then verifying, those identities of millions of petitioners.

A fourth idea would be to lower the numerical threshold for either polling averages or mass-petitioning – but to couple that lower threshold with the extra caveat that a third-party candidate must receive a cross-party endorsement (“endorsement” meaning the blessing to be allowed to debate) from the campaign of a candidate who has already qualified for entrance into the debates.  Imagine, for instance, a scenario where the Democratic nominee was fine with the Libertarian nominee debating…or where the Republican nominee was fine with the Green nominee debating.  We could see a “new normal” of four-person debates arise under this modified criteria.

In fact, the CPD could even work out an arrangement where, if there were more than four or five qualifying candidates eligible to debate (under newly-introduced criteria), their inclusion could be incorporated on a rotational basis between the three televised debates (depending on a third-party candidate’s inferior qualifying scores).

Ideally, the structure of the debates themselves, regardless of which candidates are included in them, should be revamped.  The CPD needs to be looking at every option:  from giving the debate moderator authority over cutting off candidates’ microphones (for when candidates inevitably exceed their speaking time limit) to letting journalists ask candidate-neutral questions (so that no candidate is having pointed questions directed specifically at him or her).

Regardless of *how* the CPD’s oversight of debates gets retooled – it still needs to be retooled.  The polling traditionally used by the CPD to measure candidates’ threshold for inclusion is unreliable…and any polls used should be chosen by the commission at least a few months prior to Labor Day, to ensure the least amount of “short window manipulation” possible.

And, most importantly, Americans must quit accepting the whopper that the Commission on Presidential Debates is somehow “nonpartisan.”  When two-thirds of a commission is inherently oligarchical, that is anything but “nonpartisan” – no matter how fervently Donald Trump or anyone else would try to insist otherwise.


Featured image: Leonel Cunha via Flickr.