Since 1988, The Presidential “Debates” Are More Like Scripted News Conferences

The presidential debates — the single most important electoral events — should provide voters with opportunities to see the popular candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. Unfortunately, the presidential debates often fail to do so, because the major party candidates exert excessive control over them.

Presidential debates were run by the civic-minded League of Women Voters until 1988, when the national Republican and Democratic parties seized control of the debates by establishing the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Posing as a nonpartisan institution, the CPD has often run the debates in the interests of the national Republican and Democratic parties, not the American people.

Since 1988, negotiators for the Republican and Democratic nominees have secretly drafted debate contracts that dictate how the presidential debates will be structured. The CPD, which is co-chaired by leading figures in the Republican and Democratic parties, has implemented those contracts.

CPD control of the presidential debates has harmed our democracy. Fewer debates are held than necessary to educate voters. Candidates that voters want to see are often excluded. Restrictive formats allow participants to recite memorized soundbites and avoid actual debate. Walter Cronkite called CPD-sponsored debates an “unconscionable fraud.”

Open Debates informs the public, the news media and policy makers about the antidemocratic conduct of the CPD. Open Debates does not advocate the general inclusion of any candidate; it merely advocates that the debates reflect the wishes of the American people.