Open Debates


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What is the CDP? -Revealing History
-Candidates Control the Debates
-FEC and IRS Violations
Corporate Sponsorship of the Debates Exclusion of Popular Candidates Dreary Formats Lies and Deception Open Debates' Victories

Candidates Control the Debates


When they sponsored the presidential debates, the League of Women Voters assembled a team of experts to negotiate aggressively with the candidates. By doing so, the League ensured that the presidential debates served the interests of the American people, rather than the political parties.

The CPD, by contrast, allows the major-party candidates to unilaterally dictate many of the details of the presidential debates, at the expense of voter education. Every four years, negotiators for the Republican and Democratic campaigns meet behind closed-doors to draft secret debate contracts. The CPD implements the contracts and conceals them from the public, shielding the major-party candidates from criticism. Frank Donatelli, senior advisor to the Bob Dole presidential campaign, explained, "The commission throws the party, the commission gets the food, hires the band, but as to who shows up, what the time is and what the dress is, those are the candidates' decisions."

The Republican and Democratic debate negotiators often have significant ties to the CPD. For example, Vernon Jordan was a CPD director before becoming Democratic nominee Bill Clinton's debate negotiator in 1996 and Democratic nominee John Kerry's debate negotiator in 2004. David Norcross was the vice-chairman of the CPD before becoming Republican nominee Bob Dole's debate negotiator in 1996.

Under CPD sponsorship, the secretly negotiated debate contracts have dramatically increased in size and depth. There were no debate contract in 1976 and 1980. In 1984, the League of Women Voters and the major party campaigns collectively negotiated a three-page Memorandum of Understanding. In 1988, the Bush and Dukakis campaigns drafted a 16-page Memorandum of Understanding - the first time a debate sponsor had been excluded from the negotiations.   Since 1992, each debate contract has been at least 20 pages long.

Since 1992, the debate contracts have been remarkably similar, all addressing in like fashion: candidate participation, staging details, podium heights, audience placement, selection of moderators and panelists, dressing rooms, press seating, restrictions on camera shots, division of tickets, time limits on responses, opening and closing statements, role of the moderator, press passes, and even coin tosses. In fact, entire paragraphs, word for word, are included in the agreements year after year.

Each Memorandum of Understanding includes the following provision (with slight variation): “The parties agree that they will not (1) issue any challenges for additional debates, (2) appear at any other debate or adversarial forum with any other presidential or vice presidential candidate, or (3) accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate.”  This provision awards the CPD a complete monopoly over the presidential process.


Every year election cycle since its inception, the CPD has adamantly refused to release the Memorandum of Understanding.  In 2012, the Commission refused to release the contract, even after Open Debates and 17 other pro-democracy groups – including Common Cause, Public Citizen and Rock the Vote – demanded the Commission make the document public. (The contract was eventually leaked to Time Magazine against the Commission’s wishes.)

The 7 Major Problems with the CPD
The CPD was created by the major parties to strengthen the major parties.
The CPD is primarily financed by multinational corporations.
The CPD awards the candidates excessive control over the debate process.
The CPD excludes popular candidates
The CPD employs restrictions on formats that inhibit debate.
The CPD shields the major party candidates from public accountability.

The CPD violates FEC and IRS regulations.