How Presidential Debates Became ‘A Fraud On The American Voter’

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With the Democratic and Republican nominees selected, the presidential debates are just around the corner. The venues and dates for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s three bouts are set, but many important details are yet to be worked out, likely behind closed doors.

Facilitating negotiations between the campaigns will be the official sounding but private Commission on Presidential Debates.

The CPD has its work cut out for it. “Given that one of our candidates… is very proud of the fact that he’s good at negotiating deals, it might get complicated,”explained CPD co-chair Mike McCurry.

There’s lots to negotiate. Take something as seemingly mundane as podiums: How high? How far apart? At what angle? Will they be dispatched with for a seated debate?

Then there are more consequential matters, like who will moderate. Not only who but how. A 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney outlined:


The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on… questions asked by the audience.


The parties haven’t always exercised so much control over the debates.

League of Women Voters

Shortly before passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the League of Women Voters sprang into existence to help women exercise their soon-to-be-won right to vote.

The nonpartisan League began hosting debates, filling a civic void. By the time the League started sponsoring televised presidential debates in 1976, it had decades of experience hosting debates at all levels. That didn’t mean there wasn’t controversy.

In 1980, when Jimmy Carter squared off against Ronald Reagan, the League angered Democrats by including Independent John Anderson in the first debate (he was polling around 15 percent). An outraged Carter refused to participate.

In 1984, the League once again asserted its independence, earning the ire of both major parties. When Reagan and his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, rejected the names of 83 potential moderators, the League embarrassed the candidates by publicly calling them out.

‘A Fraud on the American Voter’

Fed up with the League’s independence, the two parties hatched a plan. In 1987, they created the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), with the Democratic and Republican chairmen serving as the organization’s co-chairs.

In the 1988 election, the major party candidates quickly agreed to participate in CPD-sponsored debates, effectively sidelining the League.

The resulting debates were “phony, part of an unconscionable fraud,” said CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.

It’s “a charade,” said CNN’s Bernard Shaw, “these were not debates.”

It’s “a fraud on the American voter,” said the League, which ceased involvement so as to avoid “becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Corporate Money

With the civic-minded League out, money poured in. Anheuser-Bush and Philip Morris, among other corporations, provided large donations, and in return were featured prominently at the CPD debates.

When George Farah – author of No Debate, an expose of the CPD – asked about the propriety of beer and tobacco companies sponsoring presidential debates, Frank Fahrenkopf replied:


Boy, you are talking to really the wrong guy. I’m a guy who represents the gambling industry.


But Fahrenkopf doesn’t just represent gambling interests, he’s also the Republican CPD co-chair, a position he’s held since CPD’s inception nearly thirty years ago.

Fahrenkopf’s Democratic counterpart, McCurry, is also a lobbyist. After serving as Bill Clinton’s press secretary, McCurry went on to lobby for, among others, telecoms seeking to kill net neutrality.

The other 15 CPD board members are mostly party insiders and donors.

This (bi)partisan board, along with the two major party nominees, serves as gatekeeper to the presidential debates every four years.

  • Dave Constable

    The characters controlling the debate participation say a participant has to have 15% on 5 polls. They don’t spell out which polls – which seems a tad too cute.
    I thin the argument by third parties , that if a campaign has a mathematical chance to win at the electoral college level seems more reasonable, and is objectively more clear cut.
    (Of course, there is the problem of the two major parties making it so difficult for third parties to get on the ballot in individual states.)

  • gininitaly

    When is everyone going to understand that this country has a had a coup d’etat and that no one in Washington gives a damn about the American people or any of the other global human beings…… what you see is just grease paint, sound bites and PR men who have manufactured your consent for a fee…. to carry on with the show.

  • Michael McKinley

    I favor inclusion not by some arbitrary number in the polls, but by ranking in the polls that requires the conversation be opened up to other parties and independents. Say, the top four candidates in the national polls. Also, let’s bring back the League or some other truly non-partisan organization to run the debates. Ban political parties, lobbyists, and all others with an axe to grind (including media corporations and advertisers) from any decision-making about the debates. In fact, ban advertisers period from the debates; free prime time air time and live streaming for a certain number of debates every four years on all national networks (not cable) simultaneously should be required as simply a cost of doing business. I’m tired of the “press” getting all the protections of the fourth amendment while using those protections to get filthy rich from the billions of dollars they make selling our democracy to the highest bidders, and bearing no responsibility for performing the functions of a free press desired by our country’s Founders.

  • mwildfire

    Absolutely right on all points, but it won’t happen.

  • Michael McKinley

    Not without a revolution. Requiring free air time has to be at the heart of any meaningful campaign finance reform. The billions that buy our democracy go for advertising.

  • chetdude
  • chetdude

    Along with OUTLAWING paid political advertising…

  • gininitaly

    Oh yes… the Powell Manifesto was the knee jerk reaction to the civil social uprisings of the 60’s, when educated young people were starting to understand and rebel against a war for no reason, question their government and supported equal civil rights for blacks and basically were fighting for a more transparent, just and fair democracy for everyone.

    Everything we’ve been living since then has been about squelching all of that and trying to make sure that it never happens again.

  • gininitaly

    Hear hear.

  • Steven Berge

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch a scripted and staged conversation that excludes anyone not pre bought by corporations. I know Trump isn’t bought by a corporation, but he is one.

  • gininitaly
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