Whose interests does the presidential debates commission serve?

On Monday, Mark Halperin published a memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns on how the debates would be conducted. Both campaigns had expressed concern that Candy Crowley, who will moderate tonight’s town-hall-style debate, might ask follow-up questions.

USA Today’s Martha T. Moore writes that Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told her “the commission is not bound by the campaigns’ agreement“; Crowley “will be able to ask follow-up questions during a two-minute ‘discussion’ period after each candidate has answered the question posed by a member of the audience,” Moore writes.

“This (agreement) is between the campaigns,” [Fahrenkopf] said Monday. “We haven’t agreed to it and neither has Candy.” Nor has the commission sent CNN a copy of the campaigns’ agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, he said.


Fahrenkopf is not twisting the facts: The memo says the agreement is between the Obama and Romney campaigns, whose representatives’ signatures are its only endorsements. But if CPD wants to sponsor the debates, it has to honor the agreement. It’s in the agreement:

The candidates agree that the Commission will sponsor the debates, subject to its expression of willingness to employ the provisions of this agreement in conducting these debates. In the event the Commission does not so agree, the two campaigns jointly reserve the right to determine whether an alternate sponsor is preferable.

Mike McCurry, CPD’s other co-chair, told Tech President’s Micah Sifry, “I think we may be splitting too many hairs here” about the campaigns’ desire to rein in Crowley.

Our only issue is that the citizen questioners get their chance to pose the question without reinterpretation from the moderator. And of course she has the reins during the discussion period

“This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Commission on Presidential Debates,” Sifry writes.

On the one hand, to maintain its tenuous legal standing as the unofficial arbiter of who gets into the debates, it has to pretend to be neutral and not a creature of the two major parties and their presidential campaigns. On the other hand, in order to actually have the confidence of the major party campaigns, the CPD has to do its utmost to enforce the secret memorandum the campaigns negotiate that actually governs these joint TV appearances.

So whose interests, exactly, is the debates commission looking out for? Is it the voters? The networks? The candidates? All three benefit in various ways.

The candidates

According to the memo, the campaigns approve the debate formats, how town-hall debate participants will be chosen, how the candidates will be addressed and how and when the moderator will select their questions.

They must approve the commission’s designs for the table used in the vice-presidential and third presidential debates. The campaigns stipulate that the commission will follow its agreements on the height of podiums, the noise level of the audience (“silent observation”) and the “appropriate temperature” of the room.

In 1988, the League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring presidential debates “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” League President Nancy M. Neuman said the campaign’s demands regarding “the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues” were “outrageous” and called their agreement “a closed-door masterpiece.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987. In their agreement, the campaigns say they won’t appear together in person or in any other forum. “If we’re going to have fewer questions, then naturally we need more debates,” debates critic George Farah tells Brian Stelter.

The networks

Ratings for the presidential debates have been very good. The Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate drew more than 50 million viewers. The Oct. 3 presidential debate drew 67 million — just behind the Super Bowl, David Carr noted.

Interestingly, the agreement between campaigns would seem to ban the split screens that are mother’s milk for post-debate analysts on the networks. And during: CNN’s coverage looks like something out of “Minority Report” compared to PBS’ poky insistence on training the camera on whoever’s speaking.

From the memo:

When a candidate is speaking, either in asking a question or making his closing statement, TV coverage will be limited to the best of the Commission’s ability to the candidate speaking. To the best of the Commission’s abilities, there will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question or to a candidate who is not giving a closing statement while another candidate is doing so.

The voters

Romney has surged in polls after the first debate, which Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein wrote featured a “weedy tax argument that no normal human being could possibly follow.” Klein writes something called Wonkblog, so I think it’s safe to take that as a compliment.

As constricted as these things are, voters are tuning in like crazy and using them to help choose who will lead the country. Would they really have a better basis for that decision if the debates were unshackled from the campaigns? Perhaps not. Maybe a better question is: Does the secrecy in which the debates are organized adequately reflect the democracy they’re supposed to serve?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.lindsay.oracle Gary Lindsay

    Dance 10, Looks 3 (And the country is still on unemployment)

    Both candidates and campaigns are dreadful – nasty innuendo, no substance. I am voting Libertarian this year.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, all third-party candidates are above 1% and Gary Johnson polling at 4.3%, close to the 5% point one needs to reach to attain access to federal funding.
    http://www.jzanalytics.com/DATA/Crosstabs_JZA_Voters_2way_and_3way_HR_083112.pdf
    summary at 9/3/12 at http://www.jzanalytics.com

    The CDP has set the bar at 15% for any third-party candidate, an artificially high number obviously meant to deter inclusion of a third-party candidate. Not to mention that the CDP was created specifically created to wrest the debates away from the League of Woman Voters, who refused to exclude third-party candidates from the debates.
    http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/16/secret_debate_contract_reveals_obama_and

    Not to mention that 46% of Americans favor a third-party candidate on the ballot.
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/157427/americans-split-need-third-party.aspx/

    And that 24% said they would vote for a third-party candidate.
    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2011/11/25/24-percent-would-support-third-party/UPI-74501322245196/

    You give me a trillion dollars and I’ll get almost anyone elected. You see, the main stream media are not doing their job of questioning the claims of the ads for each candidate because Citizens United has allowed so much money to flow into the ads, that there is a shortage of available ad time in some areas and that allows stations to raise their rates. With a trillion dollars I could get away with saying anything.

  • Anonymous

    there would be absolutely no point to include third party candidates in these debates who would not get 1 percent of the vote EVEN IF they had a trillion dollars to spend. these debates are far from flawless for any number of reasons, but they DO give voters a side-by-side comparison of the candidates, which includes a good many direct exchanges that help voters see the similarities and differences in their positions. that is of considerable value.

  • Clayton Burns

    It is now clear that Romney is not going to become President of the United States. Anyone watching the aftermath on CNN featuring Wolf Blitzer, and then John Kerry, would realize that Romney was “overwhelmed.”
    The CNN aftermath buried Romney. Wolf intelligently opened with the Obama evaporation of Romney’s taxes position, when then Romney snapped back feebly that of course the math added up: “of course they add up.”
    No, Mitt, your dodgy figures do not add up.
    Just automatically CNN, whose Blitzer has good news judgment usually, gravitated to overwhelming coverage of the President and then Kerry immediately after the debate. Romney disappeared like the second rate guy he is. Candy was sharp in her aftermath interview.

  • Clayton Burns

    This Kerry Ladka question (from an “Uncommitted Voter”) should have been turned aside by the not very swift moderator. Wolf Blitzer is not that slow on the uptake. Does anyone believe that these guys just happened to be sitting around yesterday and noticed this stuff?
    And what is with the advertising for the “brain trust”?
    Was this junk actually in the written question?
    Kerry Ladka was so shook up he had to read it off like the rube he is.
    What a fixed, trashy performance.
    I vote the moderator even worse than Lehrer on this matter.
    The American public, except for this deception, performed extremely well.
    CNN, your advertising exasperated me. I was trying to work on your video.

  • Clayton Burns

    CROWLEY: Don’t go away, though – right. Don’t go away because I – I want you to talk to Kerry Ladka who wants to switch the topic for us.
    OBAMA: OK.
    Hi, Kerry.
    QUESTION: Good evening, Mr. President.
    OBAMA: I’m sorry. What’s your name?
    QUESTION: It’s Kerry, Kerry Ladka.
    OBAMA: Great to see you.
    QUESTION: This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply (ph) in Minneola yesterday.
    OBAMA: Ah.
    QUESTION: We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans.
    Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

  • Anonymous

    That was excellent Bon
    Glenn Greenwald also had a follow-up inspired by that discussion:
    “Here then, within this one process of structuring the presidential debates, we have every active ingredient that typically defines, and degrades, US democracy. The two parties collude in secret. The have the same interests and goals. Everything is done to ensure that the political process is completely scripted and devoid of any spontaneity or reality.

    All views that reside outside the narrow confines of the two parties are rigidly excluded. Anyone who might challenge or subvert the two-party duopoly is rendered invisible.

    Lobbyists who enrich themselves by peddling their influence run everything behind the scenes. Corporations pay for the process, which they exploit and is then run to bolster rather than threaten their interests. The media’s role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible while peddling the delusion that it’s all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained. And it all ends up distorting political realities far more than illuminating them while wildly exaggerating the choices available to citizens and concealing the similarities between the two parties.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/16/presidential-debate-issues

  • Anonymous

    : )

  • Anonymous

    Well said Kevin

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621836715 Kevin Schmidt

    Very fitting for a fake political studio wrestling match to be sponsored by cheap, tasteless beer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621836715 Kevin Schmidt

    Please explain how the voters could possibly benefit from a debate that does not allow third party candidates to participate, or from questions that are designed to uphold and enforce the status quo.
    This article is nothing but propaganda, designed to prop up the fraudulent two party system.

  • Clayton Burns

    1.Are we clear now on what the rules are for tonight? (Hint: Are you sure?)
    2.If the current arrangements are sort of OK, how did we end up with Lehrer?
    3.What are the opportunity costs of the present arrangements? Surely there are a few intelligent professors in America who could ask some questions on foreign policy, otherwise why have Yale Grand Strategy? The first moderator was a disaster, the second did her job. Why not set it up so that there is consistency?
    4.If you are going to write for Poynter, why not respond to questions?

  • http://www.facebook.com/becca.bon.3 Becca Bon

    You should also check out what i saw on Democracy Now! news program this morning. They discuss the secret debate contract the Obama and Romney Campaigns sign to control questions and exclude third parties check it out at http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/16/secret_debate_contract_reveals_obama_and

  • Anonymous

    “Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein wrote featured a “weedy tax argument that no normal human being could possibly follow.””

    Mr. Klein’s stating this, and Poynter’s uncritical dissemination of it basically says:
    1. The candidates are presenting their platforms in a non-understandable way.
    2. That’s OK
    3. We won’t explain it to you, never mind fact-check it.

    This is on top of Mr. Klein suggesting that viewers watch with the sound off!
    What that basically says is:
    1. There is no substance to what they are saying; pay no attention to it.
    2. Focus on physicality, personality and presentation
    3. Vote for the future office-holder of the most powerful position on the planet based on these criteria.

    That’s the state of journalism today.

  • Anonymous

    “In 1988, the League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring presidential debates “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.””

    Actually, they didn’t stop sponsoring. They were pushed out by the CPD, which was specifically created to wrest control of the debates from the League of Women Voters who would not kowtow to the 2-party monopoly.

    The discussion at the link to the quote below is all well-worth reading:
    “Well, the commission, the Commission on Presidential Debates, sounds like a government agency. It sounds like a nonpartisan entity, which is by design. It’s intended to deceive the American people. But in reality, it’s a private corporation, financed primarily by Anheuser-Busch and other major companies, that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties to seize control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters in 1987. And precisely as you said, Amy, every four years, this commission allows the major-party campaigns to meet behind closed doors and draft a secret contract, a memorandum of understanding that dictates many of the terms.

    The reason for the commission’s creation is that the previous sponsor, the League of Women Voters, was a genuine nonpartisan entity, our voice, the voice of the American people, in the negotiation room, and time and time again, the League had the courage to stand up to the Republican and Democratic campaigns to insist on challenging and creative formats, to insist on the inclusion of independent candidates that the vast majority of the American people wanted to see, and most importantly, to insist on transparency, so that any attempts by the Republican and Democratic parties to manipulate the presidential debates would pay—would result in an enormous political price.”

    http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/3/ahead_of_first_obama_romney_debate