Editor’s Note: Frank Fahrenkopf is co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Formerly he was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Dorothy Ridings is co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates and formerly was president of the League of Women Voters and president and CEO of the Council on Foundations. The views expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on CNN.
Anticipation of the presidential general election televised debates seems to begin earlier with each passing campaign cycle. Already this cycle, there has been much discussion of those debates, yet many Americans are not familiar with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the organization that, since 1988, has been dedicated to ensuring that such debates take place.
The CPD is a private, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization. As a 501(c)(3) organization, it is eligible under federal law to serve as a debate sponsor. The CPD’s primary mission is to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between and among the leading candidates for the offices of president and vice president of the United States.
The CPD is an independent organization. It is not controlled by any political party or outside organization, and it does not endorse, support or oppose political candidates or parties. It receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate. The CPD has sponsored general election presidential debates in every election since 1988 and is developing plans for 2020.
Given the importance of the debates, robust discussion of every aspect of the debates is certainly fair game, and the CPD has long not only welcomed but sought out solid and creative ideas for enhancing the debates. However, in a recent CNN Opinion piece, Christine Todd Whitman and Bob Kerrey argued that no independent presidential candidate stands a chance without being in the general election debates and mischaracterize the CPD. As CPD co-chairs, we feel it’s important to clarify the work this important body does.
The CPD is run by an independent board made up of independents, Republicans and Democrats. It receives no party or government funding, and no major party official serves in any capacity with the CPD. While CPD’s co-founders, over 30 years ago, served as chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, it is not, as Whitman and Kerrey argue, controlled by the major parties.
A challenge faced by any sponsor of general election debates is identifying whom, among the hundreds of declared candidates in any election cycle in addition to those seeking the nomination of a major party, to invite to participate in the debates. No candidate is obligated to debate, and there is a significant risk that a leading candidate would not agree to share the debate stage with a candidate who enjoys only modest levels of national public support.
Thus, the debate sponsor’s legitimate goal in formulating its candidate selection criteria is to be sufficiently inclusive so that any candidate properly considered a leading candidate is invited to debate, but not so inclusive that one or more of the candidates in whom the public has demonstrated the greatest level of support refuses to debate.
Given that the purpose of the CPD’s debates is to afford the voting public an opportunity to sharpen their views, in a debate format, of the principal rivals for the presidency, the absence of one of the leading candidates would dramatically undercut the educational purpose of its debates and would not well serve the public.
Since 2000, the CPD has applied a wholly transparent set of criteria for determining eligibility to participate in the general election debates it sponsors. Party affiliation simply is not a factor. Since 2000, the CPD has invited any candidate who is 1) constitutionally eligible to hold the office of president of the United States, 2) on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority in the Electoral College and 3) supported by at least 15% of the electorate in an average of five high-quality national public opinion polls conducted a few weeks before the debates. Notably, the 15% standard is the same as the one applied by the League of Women Voters in 1980 when it sponsored the general election debates.
In every debate cycle from 2000 to 2016, the CPD has selected the polls based upon the recommendations of Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, who considers the quality of the methodology employed, the reputation of the polling organizations and the frequency of the polling conducted.
Whitman and Kerrey have allied themselves with Level the Playing Field, a group dedicated to the effort to guarantee that a third-party or independent candidate will be included in the general election debates regardless of whether that candidate enjoys substantial public support.
They write, “Imagine the effect … on the Dallas Cowboys franchise if the team were prohibited from ever being in the Super Bowl.” To that we would say, imagine if the Cowboys, or any other NFL team, demanded to be in the Super Bowl without earning a spot by winning the games necessary to qualify. Just as the leading football teams are determined by their win-loss record, leading political candidates are determined by the level of public support they have earned. While imperfect, high-quality public opinion polls are the best measure of that public support.
Whitman and Kerrey also imply that three former CPD directors left the CPD board because of a paid advertising campaign by Level the Playing Field. In fact, each of these three directors was highly supportive of the CPD and, as they shared with us, stepped down for reasons completely unrelated to those factors cited by Whitman and Kerrey. Former Governor and current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels retired from the board at the end of his board term because of schedule demands; CBS News asked Bob Schieffer to return as a political contributor to offer commentary in 2016; and former CIA Director Leon Panetta wished to take a more active role in the 2016 campaign.
Finally, the CPD publishes its candidate selection criteria a full year before the debates so there is no question as to the standard that will be applied to any and all candidates for president. The CPD’s criteria have been in full compliance with Federal Election Commission rules since we were established in 1987.
The CPD is working on plans for the 2020 debates and, as always, will apply its candidate selection criteria fairly and objectively. It is deeply disappointing to see people of Whitman and Kerrey’s accomplishments and intellect put their names to an article that distorts and misrepresents our work.