Everything you need to know about the Commission on Presidential Debates

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Thursday that he was boycotting the second presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami after the event’s organizers made it virtual, calling it a waste of his time.

The Commission on Presidential Debates ditched their plans for the in-person event on Oct. 15 to “protect the health and safety of all involved” following a cluster of cases at the White House which infected the president himself.

The decision sparked a furious round of condemnation from Republicans who claimed that the committee was working on behalf of Democrats.

Here’s what you need to know about the organization and how they run the debates.

What is the Commission on Presidential Debates?

Televised presidential debates have been taking place since 1960 when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy first went toe-to-toe on the small screen.

But the events themselves were never mandatory. After the Nixon-Kennedy debates, there was no match-up in 1964, or 1968 and 1972 after Nixon refused to participate.

The televised debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Reagan and Walter Mondale in 1984 were also so hastily-arranged that there were fears there would not be any debates at all, according to the commission website.

To combat this, the chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees established the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987 and took control of the contest, angering third-party candidates who have been excluded ever since.

Do candidates have to participate?


While the presidential and vice presidential debates are considered the climax of the lengthy election process, it’s not mandatory for candidates for federal office to participate, according to the commission.

In 2016, Trump sent shockwaves through the political world when he also boycotted the seventh Republican presidential debate and held his own event in Iowa — stealing the show he refused to attend.

Fox News was forced to cancel another GOP debate in Salt Lake City two months later when Trump declined to participate.

But Trump was hardly the first candidate to do it, with Nixon also shunning the debates in the 1970s.

What debates have they ruled over?

Every debate since 1988, including George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis; Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush in 1992; Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole in 1996; Al Gore vs. George W. Bush in 2000; George W. Bush vs. John F. Kerry in 2004; John McCain vs. Barack Obama in 2008; Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, and Hillary Clinton vs. Donald J. Trump in 2016.

What powers does the commission have?

The CDP has unfettered power to decide when, where and how the sparring matches happen and who moderates them.

The commission’s board of directors chooses sites for the debates after accepting bids from interested sites, typically college and university campuses, and announces the dates a year in advance.

Moderators are chosen several weeks before the three presidential debates based on their familiarity with the issues and experiences in live television broadcast, and are given full power to chose the line of questioning without any input from the commission.

Why is the commission controversial?

The board of directors are no longer associated with the two major parties, now consisting of former lawmakers and the CEOs of major companies, among others, but the lack of transparency about how the commission raises funds has attracted scrutiny.

In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the Commission on Presidential Debates a “secretive tax-exempt organization.”

The committee raises the bulk of its funds through private donors which have never been disclosed.

The personal views of board members is also a point of contention.

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on Thursday accused the organization of holding a grudge against the current president.

“This is not a nonpartisan commission. It is filled with Republicans who have been very critical of this President and a large group of Democrats,” McDaniel told Fox News anchor Sandra Smith.

McDaniel pointed to negative remarks made by board members Olympia Snowe, a former GOP senator from Maine who in 2016 said Trump was “hurting our brand,” and John Danforth, the former GOP senator from Missouri, who said Trump was “the most divisive president in our history.”

“These are not Republicans who support this candidate and they are not on a nonpartisan commission and they are affecting the election right now,” she said.

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