Who's In Charge of the U.S. Presidential Debates?

Barack Obama Presidential Debate Preparations
President Obama talks with VP Joe Biden's Chief of Staff Ron Klain during presidential debate preparations. Senator John Kerry, at podium, played the role of Mitt Romney during the preparatory sessions.

This article is from BallotPedia, the Encyclopedia of American Politics

Who Controls the Debates?

The Commission on Presidential Debates -- or CPD --  is a non-profit organization that sponsors, helps to organize and sets the guidelines for general election presidential and vice presidential debates. It was founded in 1987, and the CPD has sponsored every general presidential and vice presidential debate since 1988.

The Commission is controlled by an independent board of directors. According to the CPD website, it gets the majority of funding its from the "communities that host the debates," and, to a lesser extent, corporate, foundation and private donors.


The mission statement on the CPD website, is as follows:

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The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was founded in 1987 by Paul G. Kirk and Frank J. Fahrenkopf in response to the lack or poor quality of presidential debates, according the CPD website. CPD cites two studies conducted in the 1980s by Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics. The researchers concluded that debates were a useful tool in the election process, which suggested that organized debates were necessary. At that time, Kirk and Fahrenkopf were chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, respectively. They sought to establish an independent organization that would "organize, manage, produce, publicize and support debates for the candidates for president of the United States."

The CPD has also been active in international debates. It belongs to a network of 19 countries that seek to help improve debate forums around the world. 

Historical influence of the debates

About 67 percent of those who voted in 2008 said that the presidential debates between Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R) helped them choose which candidate to vote for. Nearly 80 percent of Americans watched at least some portion of the debates, and 41 percent watched them all. Only the 1988 and 1996 debates were found to be less helpful in the decision-making process than helpful. Between 2000 and 2008, an average of 64 percent of voters found the debates helpful

Since 1988, the number of American's who found the presidential debates helpful in the decision-making process has fluctuated from 70 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 1996. According to the Pew Research Center, several factors have proven to make a debate significant in past elections. One is when the candidates are polling very closely. Another is when voters have "unresolved questions about the personal character of one, or both, of the candidates." In the 2016 debates between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, both of these factors could come into play.

Even when debates have affected voter preferences in past elections, they have only impacted polling numbers by a few points. Looking at the numbers for the 1988 debate between George H.W. Bush (R) and Michael Dukakis, prior to the first debate, Bush was at 50 percent. After the debate, he dropped to 47 percent. But after the second debate, his lead increased from 49 percent to 50 percent. There have been some exceptions to this trend, however. In 1992, for example,Bill Clinton's (D) numbers dropped by 6 percent between the first debate and after the third debate. Ross Perot, the Independent Party candidate, gained 8 percent during the 1992 debates. In 1972, Jimmy Carter entered the debates with about a 10 percent lead but lost that lead after the debates.

Bill Clinton, in 1992, is the only candidate since 1988, who went into the debates with higher numbers than after the final debate. Clinton went from 50 percent to 44 percent. In contrast, only three winning candidates seem to have been unaffected by the debates: Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 1988, and Reagan in 1984, though their numbers fluctuated during the debates.

A study of campaign debates from 2000 to 2012 found that after a presidential debate 86.3 percent of voters from a nationwide sample remained unchanged in their preference for a presidential candidate, while 3.5 percent switched candidates, 268 went from undecided to decided, and 131 went from decided to undecided.

Debate qualification criteria

  • Satisfaction of the eligibility requirements to hold the office of president of the United States, as set forth in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.
  • Qualification to appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority.
  • A level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by the average of five selected national public opinion polling organizations.

According to the CPD website, the organization uses criteria that seek to identify candidates "whose public support has made them the leading candidates." The CPD outlines the criteria used in previous debates, but has not yet come up with the criteria for the 2016 debates. The criteria are often applied after Labor Day of the election year.

The choice of a 15 percent threshold, according to the CPD, was based on studies that determined that such a threshold allowed for other candidates that had enough "public support" to retain the purpose of the debates, that is "voter education." The CPD, based on their own analysis, notes that 15 percent is an achievable percentage for third-party candidates.The five polls are chosen by Dr. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, who considers the methodology used in, the sampling size of and the frequency of the polls, and the reputation of the polling institution. The polls used in 2012 were ABC News/The Washington PostNBC News/The Wall Street JournalCBS News/The New York TimesFox Newsand Gallup.

Debate general format

In 2000, the CPD introduced a table, rather than podiums, as the setting for their debate. Since 1996, they have used a single moderator, who is chosen based on the following criteria:

  • Familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign.
  • Extensive experience in live television broadcast news.
  • An understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views.

The moderator formulates his or her own questions. In 2012, the format was changed to six 15 minute segments, in which each segment was given over to a single topic, two of which specifically covered domestic affairs and the other foreign affairs. The sites for debates are selected via a bidding process, in which interested institutions submit proposals to host the debates.The debates are also sponsored, according to ABC News, by companies like US Airways, Anheuser-Busch and 3Com, who reportedly attend the debates and private events surrounding the debates.  In 2012, Politico noted that Philips Electronics had pulled its sponsorship stating that they did not want to associate with "partisan politics" and pulled out only a few days after two other sponsors had withdrawn their sponsorship, BBH New York and the YWCA.

Third party candidates

The CPD's selection criteria for the presidential debates has come under some criticism. Los Angeles Times reporter Juliet Lapidos wrote in The New York Times that "there are downsides to excluding fringe candidates from the national conversation." In March 2015, a group called Change the Rule, which includes former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former CIA director and retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former Sens. Bob Kerrey and Joe Lieberman, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, released a letter noting that the CPD has made it "nearly impossible" for third-party candidates to participate in presidential debates. The group's argument concludes that the exclusion "harms democracy and serves only the interests of the two major parties." The first page of the letter states their argument thusly:

In June 2015, a coalition supporting third parties in the debates, organized by Level the Playing Field and backed by financier Peter Ackerman, filed a lawsuit against the CPD and the FEC, arguing that the two organizations have "made it impossible for a third-party candidate to win the White House." The lawsuit was a response to a complaint filed with the FEC in September 2014 regarding the CPD's selection criteria, which had surpassed, by 160 days, the mandatory 120-day FEC response period with no action having been taken, according to the lawsuit.Debate over third parties

The 15 percent threshold, argues Level the Playing Field, is too high, and reducing it would still prove difficult for a third-party candidate; instead they have suggested "a playoff six months before election to allow a third-party contender with the highest poll numbers or most public signatures collected to participate in the debates." Change the Rule, in March 2015, supported the same solution.

Regarding their 15 percent threshold, the CPD states on their website

In August 2016, a federal judge rejected a 2015 lawsuit arguing that the commission violated federal antitrust laws and the First Amendment by their failure to included third-party candidates. The suit was filed by both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote that the "Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged a non-speculative injury traceable to the Commission. Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are wholly speculative and are dependent entirely on media coverage decisions. The alleged injuries––failure to receive media coverage and to garner votes, federal matching funds, and campaign contributions—were caused by the lack of popular support of the candidates and their parties sufficient to attract media attention." Collyer went on to say that because the commission was a private institution and not a government body, the commission was not subject to First Amendment obligations and, therefore, could not violate the amendment.

2016 debates

The CPD announced the moderators for the 2016 presidential debates on September 2, 2016:


On August 15, 2016, the CPD released the five polls that it will use to determine which candidates can participate in the 2016 presidential debates.Candidates must have an average of at least 15 percent in the following polls to participate in one of the CPD's 2016 presidential debates:

The CPD based its selection of polls on the following criteria, according to its August 15 press release:

  • The reliable frequency of polling and sample size used by the polling organization
  • The soundness of the survey methodology employed by the polling organization
  • The longevity and reputation of the polling organization

In September 2015, CPD announced the 2016 presidential and vice presidential debates' locations and dates. The 90-minute long debates will be moderated by one moderator and will run from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m EST. The debates will be aired without commercials.  Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will debate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, while Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence will debate Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

Debate schedule and formats

The debate will be composed of six 15 minute segments, each covering a major topic selected by the moderator and made public a week prior to the debate. Each segment will open with a question and each candidate will have two minutes to respond, followed by responses to each other and the remaining time will be used for deeper discussion.

"The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants and the other half will be posed by the moderator based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources. The candidates will have two minutes to respond and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization."

The third debate will be the same format as the first debate.

"The debate will be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The moderator will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic."


CNN reported on August 24, 2016, that the debates commission stated that the moderators for the debates would not be announced until September 5, but the group had initially planned to release the information in late August. The delay was the result of the group having difficulty choosing moderators for the debates. Ordinarily, the commission chooses nonpartisan moderators, but according to CNN, the 2016 debates had proved to be more difficult because of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's relationship with the press, namely his accusations of "unfair treatment." CNN also noted that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has had a long standing friendship with the press based on her long tenure in politics. The commission would need to seek out moderators who "have no ties to Clinton or Trump, no record of controversy with either candidate, and a reputation for being fair and evenhanded." Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, two journalist who have moderated several debates in the past, have retired and are no longer moderating debates. 


The following is the list of the CPD Board of Directors:

  • Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.Co-chairman
  • Michael D. McCurryCo-chairman
  • Howard G. Buffett
  • John C. Danforth
  • Mitch Daniels
  • Charles Gibson
  • John Griffen
  • Jane Harman
  • Antonia Hernandez
  • Reverend John I. Jenkins
  • Newton N. Minow
  • Leon E. Panetta
  • Richard D. Parsons
  • Dorothy S. Ridings
  • Alan K. Simpson
  • Olympia Snowe
  • Shirley M. Tilghman

Honorary board members include or have included former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy CarterRonald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Co-founder Paul G. Kirk, Jr. is the co-chairman emeritus and Janet H. Brown is the executive director.

To read this article in its entirety with extensive footnotes and more information on debate sponsors and CPD finances, go to BallotPedia Commission on Presidential Debates 

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