The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a non profit corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988. The Commission’s debates are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations. In 1988, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates after the George H.W. BUSH and Micheal 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 lecturns. 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.”
At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission’s creation, Fahrenkopf said that the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates, and Paul G Kirk, Democratic national chairman, said he personally believed they should be excluded from the debates.
In 2000, the CPD established a rule that for a candidate to be included in the national debates he or she must garner at least 15% support across five national polls. This rule is considered controversial as Americans tune into the televised national debates and hear only the opinions of the two largest parties instead of the opinions of the multiple other U.S Parties, including three others considered “major” for being organized in a majority of the states and a couple dozen others considered “minor”.
In 2003, a 501 (c)(3) called Open Debates was formed to advocate debates that included third parties and that allowed exchanges among the candidates. Criticism by Open Debates of CPD for the 2012 election include the secret contract between CPD and the Obama and Romney campaigns (a complaint joined by 17 other organizations including judicial watch. and CPD informing the candidates of the debate topics in advance.
In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the CPD a “secretive tax-exempt organization.” CPI analyzed the 2004 financial statements of the CPD, and found that 93 percent of the contributions to the non-profit CPD came from just six donors, the names of all of which were blacked out on the donor list provided to the CPI.
During the last week of September, 2012, three sponsors withdrew their sponsorship of the 2012 debates for not including third parties: BBH New York, YWCA USA and Phillips Electromics.
The CPD’s selection criteria for the presidential debates has come under some criticism. Los Angeles Times reporter Juliet Lapidos wrote in The New York Times that “there are downsides to excluding fringe candidates from the national conversation.” In March 2015, a group called Change the Rule, which includes former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former CIA director and retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former Sens. Bob Kerry and Joe Liederman, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, released a letter noting that the CPD has made it “nearly impossible” for third-party candidates to participate in presidential debates.The group’s argument concludes that the exclusion “harms democracy and serves only the interest of the two party system”
In August 2016, a federal judge rejected a 2015 lawsuit arguing that the commission violated federal antitrust laws and the First Amendment by their failure to included third-party candidates. The suit was filed by both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote that the “Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged a non-speculative injury traceable to the Commission. Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are wholly speculative and are dependent entirely on media coverage decisions. The alleged injuries––failure to receive media coverage and to garner votes, federal matching funds, and campaign contributions—were caused by the lack of popular support of the candidates and their parties sufficient to attract media attention.”Collyer went on to say that because the commission was a private institution and not a government body, the commission was not subject to First Amendment obligations and, therefore, could not violate the amendment.