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Politics and Economy:
Election 2004
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Debates Overview

According to campaign expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, contrary to popular belief, the amount of negative campaigning in speeches and debates remains relatively low. What have changed however, are the viewing habits of the American public when it comes to presidential debates. In 1960, over 66 million people watched the first televised debate out of a total population of 178 million. Even in 1980, the numbers were high, with over 80 million watching the debate between Reagan and Carter. But since then even as the population has swelled to over 294 million, the numbers have slipped, with only 46.6 million watching the first debate in 2000, and nearly ten million less watching the second and third debates. NOW invites you to explore the history of presidential debates and to discover how the Commission on Presidential Debates works. Also, find out what you need to know before viewing the debates below.

On October 1, 2004, Bill Moyers talks with veteran journalist Morton Mintz about the questions he thinks the candidates should be asked. Tell us what you would like to ask the candidates.

Watch NOW's September 24, 2004 investigation into the Presidential debates. Please note that there are two short clips for which NOW did not receive internet streaming rights. They are covered in the transcript.

or read the transcript

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Presidential debates can change the course of elections, but George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, has evidence showing that the debates' rules of order have been hijacked by the two main political parties. The result? Moderators can't ask follow-up questions, important issues are never raised, and credible third-party candidates are excluded from the proceedings altogether.

Open Debates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to reforming the Presidential debate process through education and action. Open Debates contends that the control of the debates by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private bipartisan corporation, results in the exclusion of popular candidates, and the avoidance of pressing national issues. Open Debates is promoting an alternative Presidential debate sponsor — the nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission — comprised of national civic leaders committed to maximizing voter education.

Open Debates is also taking legal action to reform the debate process. In April of 2004, Open Debates filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to revoke the tax status of the Commission on Presidential Debates. "The CPD violates Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids such organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate for public office. Instead of engaging in nonpartisan voter education, the CPD executes the joint demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees concerning the presidential debates, and shields the Republican and Democratic nominees from public accountability," said Open Debates Director Farah. As yet, no action has been taken on this complaint.

In August, Open Debates joined 10 other groups groups — the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, The Center for Voting and Democracy, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Democracy South, Judicial Watch, the National Voting Rights Institute, Public Campaign, Rock the Vote, and the Southern Voting Rights Project — tojointly released a report today titled "Deterring Democracy: How the Commission on Presidential Debates Undermines Democracy." The report was released in the wake of the August 12th U.S. District Court ruling ordering a Federal Election Commission investigation of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Pressure by Open Debates and other groups has led to some significant changes in the 2004 debates. For the first time in 16 years, the contract drafted by the Republican and Democratic campaigns — the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding — has been made public. Now, the general public and the media can hold the candidates accountable for the debates they have designed. Also, for the first time in 12 years, there will be more than just one moderator asking the questions. The candidates have accepted four different moderators for the four debates (three presidential, one vice-presidential). Each of the moderators was proposed by The Commission on Presidential Debates.

Debate Watching Tips

Long-time political campaign researcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and author of EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT POLITICS...AND WHY YOU'RE WRONG offers some tips for smart campaign watching. Jamieson and other campaign watchers fear that Americans feel there is nothing new to be learned from debates. However, most studies show that viewers' knowledge of a candidate and his or her issue platform improves after watching a debate.

Jamieson also suggests that viewers be wary of the poll results released by the networks immediately after the debate ends. Instead of reflecting the opinions of everyone who watched the debates, the results come from samples weighted to reflect the predebate standings in the polls. Jamieson notes that since watching long events like debates tends to reinforce existing dispositions, what this really means is that whomever is ahead in the polls before the debate is likely to come out the winner in the post-debate poll as well.

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