What Happened in 1992?
On May 17, 1992, national polls showed independent candidate Ross Perot leading President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton. On July 16, then at 20 percent in the polls, Perot stunned his supporters and quit the race. On September 9, with Perot out of the race, the CPD's Advisory Committee unanimously concluded that no non-major party candidate then seeking election had a realistic chance of victory. However, on October 1, Ross Perot announced that he was reentering the race and immediately polled at seven percent nationally.
The Bush campaign was delighted with Perot's return. When Perot had quit the race, Clinton had shot up 14 points in the polls, whereas Bush had only climbed three points. If Perot was allowed to participate in the debates, the Bush campaign reasoned, he could take more of Clinton's votes. So, the Bush campaign made President Bush's participation in the debates conditional on Perot's inclusion. Bobby Burchfield, debate negotiator for the Bush campaign, explained:
We, the Bush campaign, made it a precondition for the debates that Mr. Perot and Admiral Stockdale be included in the debates. Mr. Perot stood at less than 10 percent in every national poll, and few, if any commentators gave him a chance of winning. Under the CPD's criteria for determining whether a non-major party candidate would be included in the debates, it was far from clear that Mr. Perot would qualify. ... Therefore, the Bush campaign insisted and the Clinton campaign agreed, that Mr. Perot and Admiral Stockdale be invited to participate in the debates.
Governor Clinton did not want Perot included in the presidential debates, but he could not oppose Bush's demand without appearing anti-democratic and losing public support. Thus, on October 4, 1992, major-party negotiators submitted a secret 37-page Memorandum of Understanding to the CPD, which requested that Perot be included in all three presidential debates.
The CPD, however, did not want Perot invited to the debates. If Perot was let on stage, future third-party candidates could always point to Perot's 1992 pre-debate poll numbers to justify the inclusion of any body at seven percent in the polls. "The commission was worried about the precedent of third-party candidates always being included," said Mickey Kantor, chairman of Clinton's campaign.
On October 5, at the request of the CPD, the Advisory Committee reconvened and recommended that Perot be included in the first debate, but that his inclusion in the second and third debates be subject to further review after the first debate. The CPD adopted the Advisory Committee's recommendation and, for the moment, partially denied the joint request of the major party candidates.
The Bush and Clinton campaigns immediately rejected the CPD's piecemeal proposal, and not surprisingly, the CPD caved in to their demands. On October 7, the CPD informed the Bush and Clinton campaigns that Perot would be invited to all three presidential debates.
Perot was widely deemed the winner of two presidential debates, and he rapidly climbed from seven percent in pre-debate polls to 19 percent on Election Day -- the largest demonstrable gain for any candidate in the history of presidential debates. In large part due to his inclusion, 70 million Americans watched the final 1992 presidential debate, the largest debate audience since 1980.
Contrary to media reports and the CPD's propaganda, Perot's inclusion was not reflective of the CPD's professed commitment to the democratic process. Rather, after mounting significant resistance, the CPD was forced to include Perot in order to secure President Bush's participation in the debates. "If not for the candidate's agreement that Perot be included in 1992, he wouldn't have been included," said Bobby Burchfield, debate negotiator for Bush. Would the CPD have accepted a proposal to exclude Perot from all three of the 1992 debates? "Sure," said Bob Teeter, Bush's campaign manager, said. "If the candidates agree on a proposal, they would accept it."