Biden and Trump nixed the debate commission. What does it mean for voters?

Experts say the US presidential candidates ‘cut their own deals’ with networks, giving their campaigns greater control.

A tower in downtown Atlanta is in the background, while a sign in the foreground advertises the CNN Presidential Debate.
President Joe Biden is set to face his Republican rival Donald Trump on the debate stage at CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia [Megan Varner/Reuters]

Time and again, he reached for his handkerchief, dabbing a face that glistened under the hot TV lights.

Richard Nixon would walk away from the first televised United States presidential debate in 1960 facing a barrage of criticisms: His performance was too shifty, too sweaty. After that race, he and other presidential candidates would refuse to take part in another debate for the next 16 years.

But in the 1980s, an organisation was created to push Republicans and Democrats to participate: the Commission on Presidential Debates. It would orchestrate the debates for the next three decades.

That streak ended this year, when the candidates took matters into their own hands. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump bypassed the commission for the first time in its history, negotiating instead with TV networks to host the debates.

On Thursday night, as the two candidates square off, viewers may not notice a major difference in format. But behind the scenes, experts say there has been a power shift — away from outside management and towards candidate control.

A still of the black-and-white 1960 televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy.
Then-Senator John F Kennedy debated Vice President Richard Nixon four times on television in 1960 [John F Kennedy Library Foundation and US National Archives/Reuters, handout]

A history of shifting control

The televised debates, however, have changed hands several times over their decades-long history.

In 1960, when Nixon participated in the first televised debates with John F Kennedy — the eventual winner of that year’s race — the TV studios were in charge, and there was no audience.

“It started off with the television networks,” explained Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of a book on the history of presidential debates. “They took turns airing the debates, and that’s the only time that ever was done that way.”

After 1960, though, public debates came to a stop. Only in 1976 did they start up again, largely under the auspices of the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit that emerged out of the women’s suffrage movement.

“But they had difficulty negotiating with the candidates,” Schroeder said. “The candidates made a lot of demands and made it very difficult for the sponsors to get their work done.”

That left an opening for a new entity to emerge. In 1987, the two major political parties in the US — the Democrats and Republicans — announced the joint creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

It was envisioned as a bipartisan body to host the debates. But even then, critics questioned whether the shift would place more power in the hands of major-party candidates.

“I think they’re trying to steal the debates from the American voters,” Nancy Neuman, then-president of the League of Women Voters, told the New York Times after the announcement.

The commission also marked a switch from nonpartisan to bipartisan leadership, spurring fears that third-party candidates would be excluded from the debates.

“It seized control of the presidential debates precisely because the League was independent, precisely because this women’s organisation had the guts to stand up to the candidates that the major parties had nominated,” George Farah, the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates, told The Guardian in 2012.

A woman waves an American flag at a rally for Robert F Kennedy Jr, where another person holds up a banner that reads: "Let Kennedy Debate"
Demonstrators protest outside CNN’s offices in Burbank, California, on June 21 after third-party candidate Robert F Kennedy failed to meet the threshold for the first presidential debate [Mike Blake/Reuters]

How Trump changed the game

But the commission has historically positioned itself as a proxy for the American people.

In an interview last month with The Daily Show, commission co-founder and co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf argued the group’s role was to be “down the middle for the public”.

That characterisation has likewise been challenged, particularly as an unconventional new candidate started to reshape the political sphere: Trump.

The power shift began in 2016, when then-candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton went head to head. Their first match-up was the most-watched debate in the event’s history, drawing 84 million viewers.

But Trump denounced the debates as “biased” and suggested he might skip them in the future.

He reiterated those criticisms again in 2020, when he faced re-election as the incumbent president. The first debate that year was chaotic. Trump repeatedly interrupted candidate Joe Biden, leading the Democrat to remark, “Will you shut up, man?”

“Four years ago, these debates were a disaster,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in the governance studies programme at the Brookings Institution. She described the 2020 debates as a turning point — and as an “embarrassment”.

“It was out of control. The format was out of control,” Kamarck said. “The commission really couldn’t keep control of this any more.”

This election cycle threatened to be a repeat: Trump and Biden are expected to be their party’s respective nominees once more, and last November, the commission released its usual schedule of debate dates.

But then the campaigns started to push for more control. Trump’s team, in particular, called the commission’s timeline “unacceptable”. It argued that the debates should happen before the early voting period begins in September.

“The Presidential Debate Commission’s schedule does not begin until after millions of Americans will have already cast their ballots,” Trump’s campaign said in a statement.

It also warned, “We are committed to making this happen with or without the Presidential Debate Commission.”

Donald Trump stares at Joe Biden as he speaks behind a podium at a 2020 presidential debate.
Experts have called Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s previous debates in 2020 ‘chaotic’ [File: Morry Gash/Reuters, pool]

Debating ‘on their own terms’

Ultimately, in May, Biden announced he had accepted an invitation to debate from the news network CNN — and he challenged Trump to do the same. Trump agreed. The commission was cut out of the process entirely.

But Kamarck said the public back-and-forth was the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations by the rival campaigns. Biden’s team, for instance, requested that third-party candidates be excluded and that no audience be involved.

“The two political campaigns have negotiated among themselves and presented the debate format to the TV stations,” Kamarck said. “CNN didn’t start this — they just ended up with it.”

Kamarck emphasised that Trump’s opposition to the originally scheduled debates was likely a deciding factor.

“This was mostly Trump,” Kamarck explained. “At first, he wasn’t going to debate, and then, I think he realised that the election was a little too close not to debate. And because he is a narcissist, he decides, ‘Well, once they see me, they’re going to love me.’”

Still, participating in the debates comes with risks. Unlike rallies, ads or social media posts, debates are not something candidates can choreograph, Schroeder pointed out.

“It’s something totally out of their control. So I think campaigns and candidates have always thought that they would prefer either not to do debates, period, or to do them on their own terms,” he said.

Schroeder added that the candidates may perceive — rightly or wrongly — that there’s an advantage to dealing with TV networks, as opposed to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“They wanted to be able to cut their own deals, make their own determination about things like format and who asks the questions,” he said. “My guess is, they’re probably making life difficult for CNN.”

Signs on the side of the CNN headquarters advertises the presidential debate.
The first presidential debate in the 2024 election cycle will occur on June 27, a historically early date [Megan Varner/Reuters]

What does the change mean for voters?

On Thursday night, CNN’s debate will not feature an in-studio audience, and the candidates’ microphones will be cut off when it is not their turn to speak — conditions both campaigns agreed upon in advance.

But Kamarck noted that the commission had also chosen to mute the candidates’ mics during the second debate of 2020. Not much, she said, will be noticeably different.

“Your average voter is not going to know the difference about something that was negotiated by the commission versus between the candidates,” she said.

But the changes could still have an effect on audience perception, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, explained. She participated in a “debate reform working group” that offered recommendations to both campaigns.

Her group suggested that a live studio audience should not be part of the debate structure: Audience reactions, after all, can prejudice the response of viewers at home.

Previously, the financial model for the Commission on Presidential Debates was one reason that a live audience was invited to the debates, according to Jamieson. Universities would bid to host the debates, and major financial sponsors and donors could gain access to seats in the audience.

“The process by which the commission organised the debates and financed them was setting in place a problem, because the audience could not be relied on to be silent throughout the debate,” Jamieson said.

“The additional problem is, you saw the candidates trying to game the system by putting people in the audience who might embarrass the opposing candidate.”

CNN’s financial model, by contrast, does not rely on donations. As a for-profit company, it instead relies on advertising and subscriptions.

“The debates have never been looked at as a way to make money, and unfortunately, this is a big money-making opportunity for CNN,” Schroeder said. “I’m sure they’ll be charging well beyond their normal rates for advertising, because the audience will be much, much larger. So I think that’s problematic.”

The same would be true for any broadcaster, he added. “These are businesses, these are organisations that make money. And I think that their goal is not necessarily enlightening voters — it’s to have a good TV show. That’s a big difference.”

Though the debates are returning to the hands of TV networks, Schroeder notes the media environment has completely changed since 1960. Social media has increased the pressure candidates face.

“Now, you’re getting real-time reactions, and people are reacting to the debate as it’s happening and posting their reactions,” he said.

“Now, you’ve got millions of eyes on them waiting for a misstep, mistake or error or insult, or some moment that can light up social media and that can drive the news coverage.”

But Jamieson is optimistic about the changes behind the scenes.

“They’re returning to the traditional and studio format that started [televised] presidential debates in 1960,” Jamieson said. “It worked well in 1960. It should work well again.”

Source: Al Jazeera