Why Not Expand the Presidential Debates?

Amid unprecedented dissatisfaction with the two major party candidates, public interest in opening the presidential debates to the Libertarian and Green party nominees should be honored, says Jeff Cohen.

By Jeff Cohen

If ten major TV networks got together and decided to nationally televise a presidential debate restricted to Republican nominee Donald Trump and right-leaning Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, while barring other candidates including Democrat Hillary Clinton, it would be recognized as an act of media bias or exclusion.

But what if the televised debates this fall are restricted to just Trump and Clinton? That, too, needs to be recognized as an intentional act of media exclusion.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

In the coming weeks, we need to generate a debate about the debates — who controls them and which candidates are included. That’s the goal of a new petition launched by RootsAction.org, a group I co-founded.

Beginning in 1988, major TV networks granted journalistic control over the debates to a private organization with no official status: the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD is often called “nonpartisan.” That’s absurdly inaccurate. “Bipartisan” is the right adjective, as it has always carried out the joint will of the Republican and Democratic parties. (See George Farah’s meticulously reported book, “No Debate.”)

The commission grew out of a deal cut in the 1980s by GOP and Democratic leaders. Today, even though the US public largely distrusts the presidential candidates of the two major parties, TV networks seem willing to allow them to again dictate the terms of debate, including who gets to participate.

Here’s a brief history of how the CPD took over:

— League of Women Voters:  From 1976 through 1984, presidential and vice-presidential debates were sponsored and run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. (In 1980, the League had insisted on allowing independent candidate John Anderson to debate.)

— “Televised Joint Appearances”:  In 1985, the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, signed a remarkable agreement that referred to future debates as “nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties . . . It is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic Committees.”

— “Exclude Third-Party Candidates”: In February 1987, Democratic Party chair Kirk and GOP chair Fahrenkopf together issued a press release and held a DC news conference to announce the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (“Commission on Joint Appearances” apparently didn’t sound right) – with themselves as co-chairs. The press release called the new group “bipartisan.” According to the New York Times, Fahrenkopf indicated at the news conference that the CPD was “not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates.” The Times reported: “Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third party candidates from the debates.” The newspaper quoted Kirk: “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”

–“Perpetrate a Fraud”:  In 1988, with the CPD taking control of the debates on behalf of the two major parties, the League of Women Voters announced its withdrawal from any debate sponsorship “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. 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 answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

During the last seven presidential elections, TV networks have allowed the self-appointed CPD and the major-party campaigns to control the debates (format, who gets to ask questions, which candidates get to participate) – abandoning any role as journalistic decision-makers. Of those seven elections, only in 1992 did the CPD allow a candidate on stage who was not a Democrat or Republican: billionaire Ross Perot. That fluke happened because both parties thought Perot’s inclusion would benefit them in some way; interestingly, as you’ll see below, Perot was at only 7 to 9 percent in pre-debate polls.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

After nearly three decades, the creators of the commission are still behind it: Republican Fahrenkopf remains CPD’s co-chair, Democrat Kirk is co-chair emeritus. Both have been longtime, high-powered corporate lobbyists; the commission has been funded by powerful, politically-engaged corporations, including oil and gas, insurance, pharmaceutical and Wall Street firms.

Public pressure and petitioning are needed to get the TV networks to recognize that they are at a crossroads regarding the upcoming debates: Will they act journalistically and independently in the interests of democracy – or will they continue to be dictated to by a commission whose unabashed mission since 1987 has been to protect a two-party duopoly?

Hopefully, the TV networks will recognize how much is different today compared to the 1980s when the CPD and the two major parties were allowed to seize control of debates.

1) According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as political independents has been at record highs for five years, and stood at 42 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans identifying with the two parties that control the debates has sunk. Democrats are at their lowest point in the history of Gallup polling, just 29 percent; Republicans are very near their low point at 26 percent.

2) Both major parties have nominated individuals who break records for unfavorability, leading many voters to consider alternative candidates. Hillary Clinton is at 53 percent unfavorable (vs. 42 percent favorable) in the latest Real Clear Politics polling average. Donald Trump is off the charts with 61 percent unfavorable (vs. 33 percent favorable).

3) Mainstream TV networks are fully aware of the dissatisfaction with the major party candidates and their preference polls now often include two other candidates. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll ending on August 3 had Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson at 10 percent and left-leaning Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 5 percent. The latest CNN poll had Johnson at 9 percent and Stein at 5 percent. ABC News had Johnson at 8 percent, Stein at 4 percent. Among registered voters under 30, a recent McClatchy-Marist poll had both Johnson (at 23 percent) and Stein (at 16 percent) ahead of Trump (9 percent).

An obvious option presents itself to the networks: Tell the CPD and major-party campaigns that they no longer control the debate process and that the networks intend to present debates – controlled by journalists – that include all four candidates: Clinton, Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. If Trump or Clinton balk, let them know you’re happy to leave their podium empty.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

Johnson is a former governor of New Mexico. Stein is a physician and healthcare activist from Massachusetts. Both are articulate and informed on the issues. Both offer stark policy alternatives to Clinton and Trump, especially on issues of foreign policy and civil liberties. Both are expected to be on the ballot in almost every state.

The last time there were two such strong “third-party” candidates was in 2000 when columnist Patrick Buchanan ran on the right and consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran on the left. Polls showed solid majorities of the voting public (64 percent vs. 25 percent in one poll) wanted to see Buchanan and Nader included in a four-way presidential debate. But the CPD had erected a new barrier: these well-known candidates could not join the debates unless they were polling at 15 percent.

It was an arbitrary barrier – aimed at exclusion. It was not aimed at eliminating “nonviable candidates,” but to prevent an outsider from becoming viable. How do we know? Less than 18 months earlier, Minnesota Public Radio and the Minnesota League of Women Voters chapter had included third-party candidate Jesse Ventura in a series of gubernatorial debates alongside the Democratic and Republican candidates, though he was at only 10 percent in polls before the debates began. Ventura, a mayor and talk-radio host, ended up becoming governor with 37 percent of the vote, thanks largely to his inclusion in debates.

This fall, TV networks would be wise to follow a recommendation made 16 years ago by the Appleseed Citizens’ Task Force on Fair Debates connected to American University’s law school: Include presidential candidates who are on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning, if they either “register at 5 percent in national public opinion polls OR register a majority in national public opinion polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the presidential debates.”

In the economic realm, if Coke and Pepsi publicly and proudly announced that they were combining forces to exclude and silence any competition, one might expect anti-trust action . . . even from usually lethargic federal regulators.

In the political realm, after Ds and Rs unabashedly announced that they formed a commission for the purpose of maintaining their duopoly of power, one might expect a reaction from TV news executives – especially in an election year when the D and R nominees are so widely disliked and mistrusted.

Here’s an appropriate reaction from TV news decision-makers: “Sorry, CPD, we don’t need you to tell us who should be excluded from this fall’s debates. In the interests of democracy, we’ll be televising four-person debates.”

Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He co-founded the online activism group RootsAction.org in 2011 and founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.  

14 comments for “Why Not Expand the Presidential Debates?

  1. Vera
    August 28, 2016 at 16:06

    Why not expand the entire electoral process by encouraging the formation of more parties. What choice are two parties?

  2. Bob in Portland
    August 23, 2016 at 15:25

    The purpose of the presidential debates is to continue this political professional wrestling through the elections. The orange-haired guy is scripted to lose to H. Clinton. That’s why you won’t see third-party candidates onstage. Heck, you hardly see them in the news.

  3. acomfort
    August 20, 2016 at 15:22

    Polling at 15% gets Stein and/or Johnson into the debates.
    Some write that the polling is manipulated,
    others that the question asked “Who would you vote for?” is biased.
    The question should be, “who do you prefer to be president?”
    Then, from what I have read, the 3rd party candidates would be in the debates.

  4. Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
    August 20, 2016 at 15:19

    I had supported the 15-percent threshold until I read this article, with it saying that Jesse Ventura had jumped from 10 percent to 37 percent after being included in the debates, and after thinking, “Why does it have to be 15-percent?” I then realized that every candidate, no matter what their polls are, should be included in the debates, and before I started writing this, I realized that the debates with every candidate included should be MANDATORY, unless a candidate refuses to debate due to health or a principle – like refusing to participate in a debate with people whose policies he despises.

  5. Brad Owen
    August 18, 2016 at 05:08

    Although I’m voting Green, there are probably a half-dozen different ways to solve our democracy deficit problems, societal problems, economic problems, etc…with the proposed programs of several good minor parties out there. The REAL problem, however, is HOW to take power away from this crime syndicate that we call “The Establishment”, and place the power-to-rule, in the hands of (in my case) the Green Party & Dr. Stein?, without an ensuing, bloody, godawful war?? I have no doubt that we will NOT be shown the real results of our voting; that the crime syndicate will MAKE SURE the voting reflects what THEY want. What to do about this problem? It didn’t work out too well the last time there was a crumbling of “The Establishment” during an election; I’m referring to the 1860 election.

  6. August 17, 2016 at 08:33

    It’s so farcical as meant to be. One cannot run a ruling class society without being a scam.


  7. August 17, 2016 at 07:46

    We really need more than just another political party or more open debates. Sure, these would be interesting and they might get more people engaged, but the problem with our political system is deeper than that and we need structural reform to eliminate the two-party duopoly.

    The two dominant political parties do not think they want such change – after all the two-party system is working to keep them in power. But the recent nomination process, particularly on the GOP side, should give them some pause. Surely there must be some better process than the one that has turned the next general election of president into a contest between two candidates who are so widely disliked.

    A problem – and I would judge the most significant problem – is our continued used of plurality voting. Plurality voting cannot be depended on to make a reasonable, democratic decision from among any more than just two candidates. This is the spoiler effect and the nomination of Trump illustrates how bad a selection can result from it. There are better ways we could vote and using one of them could make a huge difference in our politics – and give us more open debates.

    I am not talking about ranked voting (IRV) though that system seems, at the margin, to be an improvement over plurality voting. I’ve discussed this issue and numerous better ways of voting that are more likely to lead to a multi-party political system at


  8. Zachary Smith
    August 17, 2016 at 00:14

    I looked up the criteria for inclusion in the Fox Republican primary debates.

    In order to qualify for the primetime debate, candidates must place in the top six spots nationally in an average of the five most recent national polls, or place within the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire in an average of the five most recent Iowa or New Hampshire polls recognized by FOX News.

    In order to qualify for the early debate, candidates must register at least one percent in ONE of the five most recent national polls recognized by FOX News.

    Any of the big Corporate TV Media could easily sponsor a 4-way debate if they wanted to. I wouldn’t expect such invitations to go out, and in the unlikely event they did, I wouldn’t expect Hillary to show up. She would look mighty bad when contrasted with Stein.

  9. Lisa
    August 16, 2016 at 18:33

    Jill Stein absolutely deserves to be included in the debates. See the article:


    How can such an undemocratic system survive in the presidential debates, requesting 15% support for the candidate? How can they ever get this support if they are not allowed to present their ideas to the American public?

    The end of the above article:

    “The runaway success of Sanders and Trump has made it clear that the American people want real change from the establishment Democratic/Republican business-as-usual that Hillary represents. But real change is not possible within the straitjacket of a debt-ridden, austerity-based financial scheme controlled by Wall Street oligarchs. Radical economic change requires radical financial change, as Roosevelt demonstrated. To carry the baton of revolution to the finish line requires revolutionary tools, which Stein has shown she has in her toolbox.”

  10. exiled off mainstreet
    August 16, 2016 at 16:27

    It seems obvious that all four candidates should be included, and perhaps even the phony neocon Romney stand-in who will probably take more votes from the harpy than from Trump, anyway, since those who would vote for him would probably not support Trump, but will enjoy an excuse not to vote for the long-hated harpy.

  11. Meme Mine69
    August 16, 2016 at 15:43


    “Trump Over-Fills Stadiums & Hillary Half-Fills Union Halls.”

    Crooked Hillary Clinton is going down like Monica.

    • Zachary Smith
      August 17, 2016 at 00:07

      Crooked Hillary Clinton is going down like Monica.

      Probably not. Michael Moore claims to have some ‘insider’ information about the past and future of the Trump campaign.


      While I have grave doubts about his claims of Trump’s original motives, (I figure he was bought by the Clintons) Trump’s future looks gloomy. No matter why he got into it, he surely needs to be out as soon as possible. Perhaps there are some deep negotiations going on between him and whoever passes for Republican leaders these days. They throw him out kicking and screaming in which case he becomes a martyr, or he suddenly has health problems with his 70-year-old body.

      Guessing now, if they ease Pence into the top position, Hillary beats him like a drum. Ditto if any other of the “Big Name” boys are given the lead, same result. Finally, virtually any US citizen over 35 years old who opposes the TPP, says he/she wants the US out of the Wars for Israel, and promises to do whatever it takes to stabilize the US economy would beat Hillary. Since I don’t think the Republicans want to ‘win’ this year, I believe they’ll pick a guaranteed loser. After all, Hillary is about as much a Democrat as Obama. Which means not very much.

  12. GT
    August 16, 2016 at 15:40

    I totally agree.
    Trump and Jill Stein lead Hillary in ONLINE polls. The other polls with Hillary leading are FAKE.
    NBC Poll ™ : Vote For Your President
    ELECTION ABC LIVE POLL: Who Are You Voting For?
    Watch out for electronic voting machine FRAUD and voting fraud during the general election to favor Hillary.
    Vote for Dr. Jill Stein of the GREEN PARTY for President and Ajamu Baraka for VP.

    • dfnslblty
      August 17, 2016 at 10:35

      Be aware that – in essence – there are NOT ten networks.
      With the existing media dynamic, more debates would not better inform the citizens.
      Most needed is a drastique change in candidates from ego-driven to community-driven leaders.

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