On the night of September 30, 2004, few of the estimated 62.4 million viewers watching President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry square off on national television likely took any notice when moderator Jim Lehrer announced, "These debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates." Many voters tuning in for arguably the most important 90 minutes of the race probably didn't know what the Commission is, either: a largely secretive tax-exempt organization, created and run by former chairmen of the two major parties, funded by a small group of unidentified major donors, and designed, it seems, to exclude nearly all third-party candidates.
The Commission began hosting televised debates in 1988, but it wasn’t the first to do so. Sixty-six million viewers watched the nation’s premiere televised presidential debate, a September 26, 1960, primetime event featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It was paid for by three major television networks, but broadcast regulations prevented them from continuing their sponsorship in the next several elections. In 1976, the independent League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to citizen education, took over. The League hosted three debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and one between their running mates, and sponsored debates in the 1980 and 1984 elections as well. The debates became part of the quadrennial election process, but the League’s management style ruffled some feathers among party insiders who wanted more control of the process. Republican David Norcross, who helped form the Commission, called the League’s debate organizers “too dictatorial” and criticized them for “ignoring or avoiding the politics of the whole situation.”
Michael Badnarik, the 2004 Libertarian Party nominee, was arrested for trespassing while trying to enter the debate grounds. (Credit: Badnarik for President)
Then, as Connie Rice, a prominent Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer and commentator on National Public Radio, characterizes it, “The debates were hijacked.” In 1988, the two major political parties seized control — against the wishes of the League of Women Voters. The Democratic and Republican national committees argued in a joint press release that their co-sponsorship would “better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all . . . institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process.” Rather than trying to change the way the League ran the debates, the two national party chairmen simply “commissioned” their own “independent” debate entity — and put themselves in charge.
With that, the Commission on Presidential Debates came into existence, led by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. They hired one full-time employee, a Republican former Senate staffer named Janet Brown. The three have led the Commission since its inception, with a board of directors made up primarily of committed partisans from the two major parties. The Commission sponsors and produces the debates, picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines which candidates participate.
Brown’s annual salary ($175,000 as of 2004 and 2005, paid even in non-election years) the organization’s operating expenses and debate production costs are paid by a small number of major donors. In 2004, the Commission took in over $4.1 million, more than 93 percent of which came from just six contributors. On the donor list provided to the Center for Public Integrity, the Commission blanked out the names of all six. Nonprofit organizations are not legally required to make this information public.
The organization’s website identifies 11 “national sponsors” of the 2004 debates, a majority of which are corporations. They include three airlines, a cable television network, a company that helps businesses and governments outsource information technology, and the self-crowned king of the beer-making business, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., which also sponsored several other debates in previous years. No stranger to a good party, Anheuser-Busch supplemented its quadrennial contributions to the Commission in the hours before the October 8, 2004, debate, in its hometown of St. Louis, by treating members of the media and other VIPs to a tent party featuring sirloin steak, stuffed portobello mushrooms, and, of course, plenty of beer.
The sponsorships have drawn significant criticism, most ardently from Open Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that describes itself as working to “ensure that the presidential debates serve the American people first.” Instead of serving the people, the group argues, the Commission serves its corporate interests. Take the 1992 debates, it points out, during which the Commission allowed its $250,000 sponsor, Philip Morris, to hang a promotional banner in an area visible in post-debate interviews. And for its $550,000 contribution in 2000, Anheuser-Busch was permitted at the event to distribute pamphlets against taxes on beer. (According to the beer industry’s lobbying group, the federal excise tax on beer has remained unchanged since 1991.)
Brown concedes that the Commission’s reliance on corporate sponsorship “seems to be . . . extraordinarily controversial,” but she told the Center  that the Commission is similar to most nonprofits in its fundraising efforts — it seeks funding from foundations, corporations, individuals, and the debate sites themselves. She insists that no funder has ever asked for a topic or question to be introduced in the debates.
The Commission also seems beholden to an interest of its own — one of exclusivity. In 2004, while reporters were treated to Anheuser-Busch’s hospitality, while John Kerry and George W. Bush argued over flip-flops, Iraq, and health care, several other presidential candidates were not allowed to join in the festivities. Though more than 1.2 million Americans cast their votes in 2004 for a candidate other than Bush or Kerry, the Commission steadfastly refused to allow independent candidate Ralph Nader, who had received more than 2.8 million votes in the 2000 election, Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik, Green Party nominee David Cobb, or Constitution Party nominee Michael Peroutka the chance to participate in the debates. The reason? The candidates did not receive at least 15 percent in national opinion polling prior to the debates.
Back in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot was the only “third party” presidential candidate to ever participate in the Commission’s debates. He wasn’t invited back during his second run, in 1996, despite receiving nearly 19 percent of the vote the prior cycle. The Commission determined that Perot’s 1996 campaign lacked a “realistic chance” of winning, citing, among other reasons, the fact that his decision to accept public campaign financing meant he would not be able to spend large sums of his own money as he had in 1992. Charging that his constitutional rights had been violated, the Texas billionaire filed a lawsuit against the Commission to gain access. It did not back down and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected his arguments.
But Perot’s suit and subsequent scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission demonstrated weaknesses in the debate commission’s position. In 1999, then-Commission Vice Chairman Newton Minow co-wrote a report recommending new criteria for who could participate in the debates that would no longer rely on the assessment of the pundits, whom he referred to as “an aristocracy of unelected analysts and observers.” He advocated a straightforward, transparent approach free from manipulation. One year later, the Commission acted on his suggestions by formally establishing guidelines for participation in the debates at a 15 percent polling threshold. To debate, a candidate must now show an average of 15 percent support in five selected national public opinion polls prior to the each debate. “You might not like the 15 percent threshold,” Antonia Hernandez, a member of the Commission’s board of directors, argued to Open Debates founder George Farah, “but it’s clearly articulated, and if a person meets it, then that candidate gets in.”
Private organizations like the Commission have a legal right to take money from whomever they want and to exclude people from their events. But the concern among the Commission’s critics is whether, as Open Debates argues, the events once dedicated to public education have become “a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences” for the parties, hinged on the 15 percent rule.
Critics such as 2004 Green Party nominee Cobb concede that while some threshold is necessary to ensure that the debates are not open to any individual who decides he or she wants to be president, the 15 percent level is unfairly high. “Most of those polls and surveys do not even list any alternative parties in their survey questions,” Cobb told the Center for Public Integrity . “[The criteria are] designed to ensure that nobody would be able to meet the threshold.”
With this rule, the Commission’s two former party chairmen and their appointed board of directors — consisting almost exclusively of partisan figures from the Democratic and Republican parties — all but guarantee that only Democratic and Republican faces are seen by viewers. “What we have,” Cobb said, “is two major political parties coming together and conspiring to ensure that under no circumstances will they let an alternative party voice be heard.”
Co-Chairman Fahrenkopf defends the high threshold as fair. “Our philosophy is, only the people who have already proven themselves to be contenders get to debate,” he said in an interview . Brown also defends the threshold, noting that “upwards of 160 people” file each election for president and that, though “many of them believe, quite sincerely, that if they were included in a debate they would get the kind of support they need to have a realistic chance of winning this election,” the Commission must balance that against “the public’s desire . . . to see and hear from the individuals who have a realistic chance of being elected.” But as Ralph Nader told the Center, being barred from the debates leaves no third-party candidate any real chance of serious consideration by the majority of voters in the first place. “The two parties created the debate commission. It’s a private company. And they have set the rules,” he said. “So if they shut you out of the national presidential debates, there is no way, short of being a Perot, of reaching people — just no way. So it’s a two-party elected dictatorship.” In his three previous presidential general election campaigns, Nader has never been allowed to participate in the Commission’s presidential debates.
In 1992, Ross Perot was the only third-party candidate ever allowed to participate in one of the Commission’s presidential debates. He was not included in the debates in 1996. (Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)
While Janet Brown said that the Commission “review[s] the candidate selection criteria in between every cycle” and takes the matter “with utmost seriousness,” the 2008 threshold remains 15 percent. This means that, barring a seismic shift in the polls, candidates like Nader, Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney, and Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin should not expect to receive invitations to the 2008 debates, which are scheduled to begin September 26 (48 years, to the day, after the famous Kennedy-Nixon showdown). Baldwin seemed resigned to his fate in an interview  just days after clinching his party’s nomination. “It seems to me that if a third party has [qualified for the ballot in enough states] to theoretically or statistically win the election, they should have an opportunity to present their ideas to the American people,” he argued. “Let the American people judge the validity and the creditability of those ideas. As it is, those invitations are not given.”
The Commission doesn’t just exclude virtually all third-party candidates from appearing in the debates. It also excludes them from even attending them. In 2000, despite having a valid credential, Nader was denied entry to the debate facilities. He vowed, “By the time I’m finished with the debate commission, its ranking in political opinion polls will be below the ranking of used car dealers,” and filed a suit charging that the Commission violated the law and his civil rights. The Commission gave him an apology† and a $25,000 cash settlement in 2002. This didn’t help third-party candidates Cobb and Badnarik, however. Both spent an evening in jail after they were arrested in 2004 for trespassing while trying to enter the debate grounds through a line of police with shields.
As Cobb and Badnarik sat in a police vehicle under arrest, a police officer opened the back door of the van and inquired, as Badnarik recalls , “Which one of you guys is a presidential candidate?” Badnarik replied, “We are both presidential candidates. We are at a presidential debate. And you have us in handcuffs. Can you explain that to me?” The officer said, “Well, let me get back to you on that.” Badnarik and Cobb are still waiting for an answer.
2004 Presidential Debate Sponsors
- American Airlines
- America’s Charities
- Anheuser-Busch Companies
- The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
- Sheldon S. Cohen – Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, LLP
- Continental Airlines
- Discovery Channel
- JetBlue Airways
- The Kovler Fund
- Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr.
- Paul G. Kirk Jr.
- Gerald R. Ford (deceased)
- Jimmy Carter
- Ronald Reagan (deceased)
- William J. Clinton
Board of Directors
- Howard Buffett
- John C. Danforth
- Antonia Hernandez
- Michael D. McCurry
- Newton N. Minow
- Dorothy Ridings
- Alan K. Simpson
- H. Patrick Swygert
- Janet H. Brown
Source: Commission on Presidential Debates 
†The apology was a two-paragraph letter from Executive Director Janet Brown to Ralph Nader. It read: “The Commission and its co-chairs did not know about your interest in attending the auxiliary viewing auditorium. If we had had a clear understanding of your intentions, every effort would have been made to protect your right to attend that event. We apologize for the misunderstanding of John Vezeris, the security consultant for the Commission, on the night of October 3 that resulted in your being required to leave the campus so that you could not attend the auxiliary viewing event and for any inconvenience to you.”