Q&A: What is the Commission on Presidential Debates, and where did it come from?

By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

The closing weeks of the 2020 presidential election have been shot through by controversy over when and how the two main candidates will meet and debate. Right in the middle of that controversy is the Commission on Presidential Debates, a little-known nonprofit that has managed the matchups for decades.

The second and final bout between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is set for Thursday night in Nashville. (What was supposed to be the second debate on Oct. 15 was scrapped when Trump refused to participate in a virtual event after his hospitalization with COVID-19.) The commission drew headlines Monday for its decision to mute each candidate during the other's opening remarks after Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden at the first debate, a matchup many commentators regarded as one of the ugliest they'd seen.

Here's what you need to know about the commission and how it emerged.

Q: Do the presidential candidates have to debate?

A: No. It's not like it's written in the Constitution anywhere, and it's not even a skill presidents really need - they don't govern by debating the speaker of the House on television, with a journalist refereeing. Debates are a relatively new thing in the long history of U.S. presidential campaigns, largely corresponding with the rise of television as a mass medium. And the best explanation for why they happen is that tens of millions of people watch them, and unlike with ads, the candidates don't have to pay anything to get those eyeballs.

The first general election debates were held on television between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960. You've probably heard the story about how Nixon looked terrible in the first debate compared to the telegenic Kennedy because he refused to wear makeup for TV. You may not know that there were three other Nixon-Kennedy debates that year, including one in which both candidates appeared remotely.


But the major parties' candidates did not spar again until 1976 (Republican President Gerald Ford versus Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter), after which point debates have happened every election cycle.

Q: Did the Commission on Presidential Debates always run debates?

A: No. Starting with the 1976 debates, that role was initially held by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, one of the nation's oldest and most famous voter-outreach groups. And the reason the league doesn't host presidential debates anymore is because the Democratic and Republican parties decided that the group was a little too independent for their tastes.

Then-President Jimmy Carter refused to appear at one 1980 debate because the league invited independent candidate John B. Anderson, whose candidacy was seen to pose more of a threat to Carter than to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan (who later beat Carter).


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