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Presidential Debates Need To Be Opened Up

August 3, 2016 Featured, Politics/Policy 9 Comments

A comment on the recent Sunday Poll sums up the current problem with American 2-party politics:

I see zero point in giving a stage to those who have absolutely no mathematical chance of winning the election. In addition to that, over two sides isn’t a debate it’s a series of “gotcha” statements with no real meaningful discourse.

And why don’t they have any chance of winning? Because 3rd/4th parties are largely unknown to voters.

Circular logic keeps us locked into the two major parties on the state & national level
Circular logic keeps us locked into the two major parties on the state & national level

But the Democrats & Republicans like the current system, because it keeps  out new ideas:

The presidential debates — the single most important election events — should provide voters with multiple opportunities to see popular candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. Unfortunately, the presidential debates often fail to do so, largely 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 consistently implemented and concealed those contracts.

CPD control of the presidential debates has harmed us. 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 even called CPD-sponsored debates an “unconscionable fraud.” (OpenDebates2016)

The League of Women Voters withdrew in 1988, here’s their October 3, 1988 press release in full:



WASHINGTON, DC —”The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on
September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and vas presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

“The campaigns’ agreement is a closed-door masterpiece,” Neuman said. “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.”

Neuman said she and the League regretted that the American people have had no real opportunities to judge the presidential nominees outside of campaign-controlled environments.

“On the threshold of a new millenium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate,” Neuman said. “Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century.” 

Neuman issued a final challenge to both Vice President Bush and Governor Dukakis to “rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate.”

The charade continues, with the DNC & RNC acting as gate keepers.

More than half who responded the non-scientific poll feel it should be easier for more than the two major parties to be part of the conversation every four years.

Q: The polling threshold for participation in presidential debates should be…

  • Lowered to 5% 10 [38.46%]
  • Lowered to 10% 4 [15.38%]
  • Kept at 15% 7 [26.92%]
  • Raised to 20% 3 [11.54%]
  • Raised to 25% 0 [0%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 2 [7.69%]

I’m now thinking the debates should be taken back from the major party-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates. Washington University in St. Louis will host a presidential debate on Sunday October 9, 2016 — see details here.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "9 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mark-AL says:

    It will remain a two-party system as long as we allow it to remain a two party system. If we drop the monikers, “republican” and “democrat” (treat and regard them like the F- word in polite company), we will slowly but surely evolve to a point that we will begin to identify with and support certain independent candidates each running independently in a certain race and in a certain election. All or some of the baggage that each of the two (previous) political parties has accumulated and carried over the years can be discarded or continue to be carried by a particular candidate–it’s his choice. Under such a system, there’s probably no reason why 4, 5 or 6 candidates can’t participate in professional debates and run (as individuals) for the highest office in our country. No longer would there be DNCs or RNC. This year we might have seen a Bernie National Convention, a Hilliary National Convention, a Donald National Convention and maybe even a Marko National Convention. Who knows? Maybe even a convention sponsoring a liberal who doesn’t think this country should sanction institutionalized murder!

    • JZ71 says:

      We all need our dreams . . . Unfortunately, the way races are run and won has devolved into one giant money pit. Few people have the resources or the ability to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to run successfully for any major race, thus the entrenched power of both parties and special-interest groups / PAC’s. Denver has non-partisan races at the city level, and St. Louis is pretty much a non-partisan (all-one-partisan?) contest in most wards – it sort of works, but there are still coalitions and voting blocks, just without “party” names attached to them. Missouri is rapidly shifting from a two-party system, at the state level, to a one-party operation, which is probably even worse (far fewer checks and balances). At the end of the day, politicians want to win, whether it’s an election or getting a bill passed. Parties have emerged to bring some certainty to the process. They’re not there because laws require it, they’re there because they’re successful . . . for better or for worse! The bigger, near-term, challenge is figuring out how non-extremists can win primary elections. Much like Messenger’s piece on Danforth in the P-D today, if the only way to get elected is to invoke God, guns and fear, that’s the government we’re going to get!

      • Mark-AL says:

        I guess I wonder why certain logistical issues wouldn’t work themselves out under careful campaign leadership, and without involving huge political organizations like the dems and the repubs. Money will always find its way to the best and most qualified candidate, and this will happen quickly if party names are past tense and playing fields are leveled. Just as a good, skilled carpenter doesn’t need to associate with labor unions in order to provide well for his family, a dedicated, honest politician’s support team can finance his campaign privately and without strapping the candidate to a particular political party. In a sense, Trump tried doing this during the primaries, but it’s too bad he turned out to be such a colossal and immature disappointment…..a missed opportunity for the republicans who probably could have beat Hilliary on Nov, 8th even if they had run Pee Wee Herman.

        • JZ71 says:

          From today’s P-D: “Greitens’ nomination caps one of the most contentious primary fights in Missouri elective history, and the most expensive, with some $22 million in combined spending by the four candidates . . . the roughly $8 million that he spent to win [is] more than any of his three opponents [and] was contributed primarily by wealthy mega-donors from outside Missouri, a factor that became a campaign issue in the race.” While I’d love to see this change, I also see absolutely no way that it’ll happen anytime soon – the biggest spender won . . . again! Candidates are programmed to raise and spend money (what you describe as “careful campaign leadership”), primarily on repetitive, vacuous media buys, because that seems to be the (only?) way to win statewide and national races. If you, I, Steve or Chief Wanna Dubie were able to raise $2M – $4M, we could probably compete, as well. But I know that I couldn’t raise $100,000, much less $1,000,000, just like most other people who would either be inclined to run for or capable of serving well in elective office.

  2. Todd Spangler says:

    No third party candidate has ever won a US presidential election; however, third party candidates have at times affected the outcome by draining support from a major candidate and consequently aiding that candidate’s opponent. The most recent notable example was in 2000, when 2.8 million well-meaning liberal voters nationwide voted for Ralph Nader, creating a chain of events that allowed George W Bush to become president. Bush’s 537 vote margin in Florida would not have existed were it not for the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Nader, the vast majority of whom would likely have voted for Gore otherwise. Third party candidates may have good ideas to contribute, but my observation is that at least in the realm of presidential politics, they mostly screw up elections.

  3. The problem is that we tend to treat the two party system as a moral failing, when it’s an institutional problem. We have a two party system because (a) we use a first past the post electoral system (Duverger’s law) and (b) we have a presidential rather than parliamentary system. Both of those tend to collapse the number of parties. Countries with one but not the other tend to have three major parties (UK, Canada), countries with neither have many parties.

    If you want third parties to matter, you should work towards changing us to multi-member districts or some kind of preference voting. Anything else is wanking.


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