April 28, 2022

By Damon Effingham,
Director of Strategic Partnerships, RepresentUs

Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted unanimously to “withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates.” The RNC had hinted at this eventual move earlier, threatening in January to ban its presidential candidates from participating in any debates sponsored by the bipartisan organization. 

The RNC cited bias against Republican candidates as one of their main reasons for quitting. But the Commission is bipartisan, including former RNC Chair Frank Farenkopf. A statement from current RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel read, “We are going to find newer, better debate platforms to ensure that future nominees are not forced to go through the biased CPD in order to make their case to the American people.” 

While our team at RepresentUs has issues with the presidential debates in their current format, this move could potentially bring an end to presidential debates. A presidential election without debates would be bad for both American voters and democracy. 

What’s wrong with the current format? 

Currently, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates runs debates. This Commission was founded in 1987 to ensure, “that general election debates between or among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States are a permanent part of the electoral process.” After more than forty years of running presidential debates, however, the Commission has come under criticism recently from multiple parties. 

The 2020 election exposed numerous flaws with the current setup, especially after the first debate between President Joe Biden and Former President Donald Trump in September 2020. After both candidates spent the vast majority of the debate yelling over each other, the headlines were brutal. Vox labeled the debate a “disaster.” For the Atlantic, the debate was “a disgusting night for democracy,” and ABC News host George Stephanopoulos remarked it was “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.” 

One writer for the Harvard Review even went so far as to argue for getting rid of the presidential debates completely. As Dylan Hu noted, both candidates were allowed to lie numerous times without being corrected by the moderators. The end result of this debate was “senseless squabbling between candidates,” without any serious policy discussions. 

While the RepresentUs team strongly advocates for the continuation of presidential debates for the benefit of American voters, there are certainly numerous steps that can be taken to improve the current state of presidential debates. 

How can we improve these debates?

Although the Commission on Presidential Debates describes itself as nonpartisan, it is in fact bipartisan. This is a big distinction, because the Commission works to benefit the Republican and Democratic parties at the expense of other political parties. After being excluded from the 2016 presidential debates, former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson didn’t hold back from criticizing the debate process. Johnson argued that the Commission was created by the Republican and Democratic parties, “for the clear purpose of taking control of the only nationally televised presidential debates voters will see.” 

This bipartisan domination has had real consequences. In fact, the last third-party candidate to participate in the presidential debates was Ross Perot in 1992. By excluding other parties Americans are restricted in the candidates they get to watch on the debate stage. Ultimately, this further reinforces the duopoly of American politics. 

One way to improve the debates would be to provide more access to third party candidates, such as the Libertarian or Green party. Millions of Americans watch the presidential debates, and shutting off access to these candidates limits American voters’ opportunity to hear from more political parties. The Commission sets the requirements for candidates to qualify for these debates, and usually these requirements are biased towards the Republican and Democratic parties. 

In an attempt to get more voices on the debate stage, the Green Party of the United States and the Libertarian National Committee filed a lawsuit in 2019 that argued the Commission was breaking the law by setting requirements that only the two major political parties can meet.

Looking Forward

Although that lawsuit failed, there are still further avenues to work to improve American presidential debates. Here at RepresentUs, we’ve been consistent advocates of policies that provide more access for third-party candidates, from ranked-choice voting to fighting partisan gerrymandering

If you’d like to join us in the fight to ensure that presidential debates not only continue existing, but also improve to provide American voters with more choice, join our newsletter below! 

Contributors: Adam DuBard, RepresentUs Political Analyst 

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.