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What You Didn’t Know About the Presidential Debates

Politics, News

The first televised presidential debate was a huge step for modern politics. While the majority of radio listeners considered Richard Nixon the winner, television gave John Kennedy a clear advantage.  Kennedy, who was tan, fit, and well-rested, was considered the winner by television viewers who didn’t appeal to Nixon, a pale and sweaty mess after being ill for weeks. The Great Debates displayed television’s power to move campaigns forward. Debate rules and formats continue to evolve, as do the people in charge.

Who’s in Charge?

The League of Women Voters moderated the 1976, 1980, and 1984 debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has moderated the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 debates. The Commission was then taken over by the Democratic and Republican parties forming today’s version of the CPD.

The League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates in 1988 after the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns secretly agreed to a “memorandum of understanding” that would decide which candidates could participate in the debates, which individuals would be panelists (and therefore able to ask questions), and the height of the podiums. The League rejected the demands and released a statement saying that they were withdrawing support for the debates because “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Format and Rule Changes

The format of the debates has changed over the years; the hour-long 1948 radio debate between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen consisted of twenty-minute opening statements with eight-and-a-half minute rebuttals. This debate also discussed one topic (outlawing the Communist party in the U.S.), while debates typically cover a variety of issues. The 1996 debates consisted of two-minute opening statements (the final debate allowed no opening statements); then candidates were questioned in turn with 90 seconds to answer; then the opponent was given a 60-second rebuttal; then a 30 second response from the other; and finished with two- to three- minute closing statements. Similar time limits have followed in recent years. While early debates have included panelists asking questions, the debates of recent years have used only one moderator to handle the questions. Candidates are not allowed to ask each other questions.

In the 2012 debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates was criticized for informing Obama and Romney of the topics to be discussed ahead of time (topics for the October 22 debate are on the CPD’s website). In July 2012, lawyers of the Obama and Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract dictating many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates, including how the format would be structured.

Weird Rules

The Memorandum of Understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns, which outlines unique rules for the debates, is full of some pretty unusual agreements:

  • The moderator may only address Obama as “Mr. President” or “President Obama;” Romney may be addressed as  “Governor” or “Governor Romney.”
  • Candidates’ dressing rooms must be “comparable in size and in quality and in proximity to the debate stage.”
  • Although the Memorandum states that candidates may not ask each other questions, Romney directly faced Obama and asked him to say how much he had cut permits “on federal land and federal waters” for fuel extraction.
  • Television shots of the candidate not currently responding are not supposed to be allowed; however, split-screen shots have been the norm this year.
  • No follow-ups by the moderator were supposed to be allowed, although the CPD eventually opted to allow follow-ups intended to “facilitate discussion.” October 16th’s moderator Candy Crowley of CNN was criticized for agreeing with and correcting candidates’ comments on current issues. Michelle Obama also broke the rules by clapping when Crowley corrected a comment by Romney.

Rules and formats for debates will likely change every year, especially since many criticize the CPD for shutting out third-party participants. Whether fact-checking will be allowed by moderators in the future  is uncertain, but no one was seen slapping Crowley on the wrist at the town-hall debate.