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Presidential Debates

A black-and-white image of two men in suits standing at podiums at opposite ends of a stage with another man in the center seated at a desk with an American flag, in front of an audience consisting of four other men in suits seated at a long table

In October 2000, a month before the presidential election, Ralph Nader was prevented from not only participating in, but even attending the presidential debates, physically barred by the private security firm hired by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Because the televised presidential debate—the “Super Bowl of politics”—is seen as the final showdown between the top candidates prior to the election, the exclusion of third-party candidates from the event not only denies them a public forum, but also ensures that the status quo of the two-party, two-candidate system remains in place. The reasoning behind such exclusions can appear to be contradictory. As political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell says, “In an election in which now the Gore world wants to say, ‘Ralph Nader lost the election for us,’ I guess he must have been a factor in the election. But you said he couldn't be in the debates because he wasn't a factor in the election.”

History of Debates

Presidential debates usually take place during the two months leading up to an election and consist of a series of three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. In 2004, the first presidential debate focused on domestic policy, the second was held in a “town meeting style” with questions posed by attendees, and the third centered on foreign policy. Each debate lasts for 90 minutes and has one moderator, often a prominent journalist or newscaster.

The major presidential nominees did not debate publicly until 1960, when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy faced one another on network television. But because incumbents often refused to participate in debates, and federal communications laws required equal time for all presidential candidates, the next official presidential debate did not take place until 1976.

Since then, debates have played a major role in forming and reaffirming public opinion about presidential candidates, allowing them to strategically broadcast their personalities to a national audience.

The Commission and Controversy

Nader filed a lawsuit with Pat Buchanan—another third-party candidate barred from attending the 2000 debates—in 2004, challenging the Federal Election Commission’s legitimizing of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The CPD was created in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic parties. The nominees of the CPD decide the number of debates that will take place, the format of the events and who will ask the questions. Further investigations followed the lawsuit, but the CPD continues to be the main organizer of presidential debates, despite growing criticism.

The CPD was initially formed to replace the non-partisan League of Women Voters, which had included independent candidate John Anderson in the 1980 presidential debate and prohibited major party candidates from selecting the debate panelists in 1984. Opponents of the CPD argue that its partisanship is questionable due to the fact that the senior staff and board members are all prominent Democratic and Republican leaders. In order to participate in a CPD-sponsored debate, a candidate must have garnered 15 percent of voter support in a major poll. Critics say that this requirement is tailored to exclude third-party candidates from participating.

In his book No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates, George Farah asserts that the CPD took over the debate process from more non-partisan groups in order to give more power to the two-party system. Funded by corporate monies, the current debate system, according to Farah, was created with the intent to stifle third-party candidates.

Debate Reform

With the 2008 elections looming, several conservative and liberal non-profit groups are working to sponsor more non-partisan debates. Increased access to the Internet has also allowed for an increased number of forums for opinion sharing and political debate. The Citizen’s Debate Commission, established by civic leaders from across the political spectrum, aims to host presidential debates that allow room for more diverse political views. However, whether or not these goals will be implemented prior to the election remains to be seen.

Read about the history of the two-party system in the U.S. >>

Learn about Ralph Nader's career as a politician >>

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