The Commission on Presidential Debates: An Overview

What is the CPD? The Commission on Presidential Debates (the “CPD”) is a private, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization. As a 501(c)(3) organization, it is eligible under federal law to serve as a debate sponsor. The CPD’s primary mission is to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between and among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States. The CPD is an independent organization. It is not controlled by any political party or outside organization, and it does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties. It receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate. The CPD has sponsored general election presidential debates in every election since 1988. Plans for the 2024 debates are underway, and the CPD looks forward to bringing high-quality, educational debates to the electorate.

Why was the CPD Formed? The CPD was formed to ensure that the voting public has the opportunity to see the leading candidates debate during the general election campaign. General election debates between and among the leading candidates for the office of President of the United States are not required or assured. After the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, there were no such debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972. There were debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, but they were hastily arranged after negotiations between the candidates that left many uncertain whether there would be any debates at all. The 1984 experience, in particular, reinforced a mounting concern that, in any given election, voters could be deprived of the opportunity to observe a debate among the leading candidates for President.

Following the 1984 election, two distinguished national organizations, the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard University Institute of Politics, conducted separate, detailed studies of the presidential election process and the role of debates in that process. Both studies found that debates between or among the leading candidates should become a regular part of the way Americans elect their presidents. A primary concern cited in the studies was that the leading candidates had often declined to debate or resisted debates until the last minute. With this concern in mind, both the Georgetown and Harvard reports recommended that the two major political parties endorse a mechanism designed to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that presidential debates between the leading candidates be made a permanent part of the electoral process.

In response to the Harvard and Georgetown studies, the then-chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, Paul G. Kirk, Jr., and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., respectively, jointly supported creation of the independent CPD. The CPD was incorporated in the District of Columbia on February 19, 1987, as a private, not-for-profit, nonpartisan corporation to “organize, manage, produce, publicize and support debates for the candidates for President of the United States.”

Who runs the CPD? The CPD is governed by an independent Board of Directors. The CPD Board presently is jointly chaired by Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Antonia Hernandez. Although at the time the CPD was formed, co-founders Kirk and Fahrenkopf served, respectively, as chairmen of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, their terms ended in 1989. In the intervening 30 years, no sitting officer of either major party has had any affiliation with the CPD, and the major parties have no role whatsoever in running the CPD or setting its policies. In addition to the Co-Chairs, the current Board consists of the following distinguished Americans, all of whom volunteer their time to serve on the CPD Board:

Roy Blunt, Former U.S. Senator
Charles Gibson, Former Anchor, ABC World News with Charles Gibson
John Griffen, Managing Director, Allen & Company LLC
Reverend John I. Jenkins, President, University of Notre Dame
Monica C. Lozano, President, College Futures Foundation
Richard D. Parsons, Chairman, Equity Alliance
Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President, The Rockefeller Foundation
Olympia Snowe, Former U.S. Senator

How is the CPD Funded? The CPD receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate. The CPD obtains the funds required to produce its debates every four years and to support its ongoing voter education activities from the communities that host the debates and, to a lesser extent, from corporate, foundation and private donors. Donors have no input into the management of any of the CPD’s activities and have no input into the process by which the CPD selects debate participants.

How has the CPD Selected the Candidates Invited to Participate in Its Debates? The nonpartisan, voter education goal of the CPD’s debates is to afford the members of the public an opportunity to sharpen their views, in a focused debate format, of the leading candidates for President and Vice President of the United States. The CPD’s approach to candidate selection has been driven by this goal.

Scores of candidates run for president every election cycle, including dozens who do not seek the nomination of either major party. The CPD applies its nonpartisan candidate selection criteria in the final weeks of a long general election campaign. The CPD’s selection criteria have sought to identify the individuals whose public support has made them the leading candidates.

In addition, candidates for federal office are not required to debate. History teaches that it is speculative at best to assume that the leading candidates would agree to share the stage with candidates enjoying only scant public support. Thus, a sponsor of general election debates that aims to provide the electorate with a focused debate that includes the leading candidates faces a difficult task. The sponsor needs to be inclusive enough to invite each of those candidates, regardless of party affiliation, whose level of public support genuinely qualifies him or her as a leading candidate. At the same time, the sponsor should not take an approach that is so inclusive that invitations to candidates with scant public support cause the leading candidates to decline the invitation to debate. The CPD strives to strike this balance in an appropriate fashion.

Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) regulations require a debate sponsor to make its candidate selection decisions on the basis of “pre-established, objective” criteria. On October 1, 2019, the CPD adopted its 2020 Nonpartisan Candidate Selection Criteria. Under the 2020 Criteria, to receive an invitation to debate, a candidate must: (i) be Constitutionally eligible to hold the office of President of the United States;  (ii) appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College; (iii) have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination. The polls to be relied upon will be selected based on the quality of the methodology employed, the reputation of the polling organizations and the frequency of the polling conducted. The CPD will identify the selected polling organizations well in advance of the time the criteria are applied.

The CPD’s determination with respect to participation in the CPD’s first-scheduled debate will be made after Labor Day 2020, but sufficiently in advance of the first-scheduled debate to allow for orderly planning. Invitations to participate in the vice-presidential debate will be extended to the running mate of each of the presidential candidates qualifying for participation in the CPD’s first presidential debate. Invitations to participate in the second and third of the CPD’s scheduled presidential debates will be based upon satisfaction of the same multiple criteria prior to each debate.

The CPD adopted its 2020 criteria based on the recommendations of a working group of its Board chaired by former League of Women Voters President Dorothy Ridings, who served as a 2020 CPD Co-Chair. At the time the Criteria were announced, Ridings stated, “We concluded that the CPD serves its voter education mission best when, in the final weeks of the campaign, based on pre-established, published, objective and transparent criteria, it identifies those individuals whose public support places them among the leading candidates and invites them to debate the issues of the day. We also concluded that the best available measure of public support is high-quality public opinion polling conducted near the time of the debates.”

Under the CPD’s nonpartisan criteria, no candidate or nominee of a party receives an automatic invitation. The CPD’s objective criteria are applied on the same basis to all declared candidates, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof.  During the course of the campaign, the candidates are afforded many opportunities in a great variety of forums to advance their candidacies. The purpose of the criteria is to identify those candidates whose support among the electorate places them among the candidates who have a realistic chance of being elected President of the United States.  It is appropriate for a debate sponsor to take the campaign as it finds it in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. The CPD’s debates are not intended to serve as a springboard for a candidate with only scant public support. Participation in the debates is determined by the level of public support a candidate enjoys as Election Day approaches.

Why did the CPD Select 15 Percent as the Polling Threshold for Inclusion in the Debates? The CPD first adopted the 15 percent level of support criterion in 2000. Its initial adoption, and its adoption in subsequent cycles, was preceded by careful study and reflects a number of considerations. It was the CPD’s judgment that the 15 percent threshold best balanced the goal of being sufficiently inclusive to invite those candidates considered to be among the leading candidates, without being so inclusive that invitations would be extended to candidates with only scant public support, thereby jeopardizing the voter education purpose of the debates. Notably, the League of Women Voters struck the balance in the same way. Fifteen percent was the figure used in the League of Women Voters’ 1980 selection criteria, which resulted in the inclusion of independent candidate John Anderson in one of the League’s debates.

Prior to adopting the 15 percent standard, the CPD conducted its own analysis of the results of presidential elections over the modern era and concluded that a level of 15 percent support of the national electorate is achievable by a significant third party or independent candidate who captures the public’s interest. In making this determination, the CPD considered, in particular, the popular support achieved by George Wallace in 1968 (Governor Wallace had achieved a level of support as high as 20 percent in pre-election polls from September 1968); by John Anderson in 1980 (Representative Anderson’s support in various polls reached 15 percent when the League of Women Voters invited him to participate in one of its debates); and by Ross Perot in 1992 (Mr. Perot’s standing in 1992 polls at one time was close to 40 percent and exceeded that of the major party candidates, and he ultimately received 18.9 percent of the popular vote).

The CPD’s nonpartisan candidate selection criteria and 15 percent threshold have been found by the FEC and the courts to comply with federal election law. The same is true for the earlier criteria the CPD used in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

Are the Major Party Nominees Automatically Invited to Participate in the CPD’s Debates? No. Under the nonpartisan criteria used by the CPD, the major party nominees’ eligibility to debate is determined by the same standards applicable to all declared candidates.

Does the CPD Conduct its own Polling when Applying the Criteria? No. In each election cycle since 2000, the CPD has retained Dr. Frank Newport, of Gallup, to assist in selecting the five national public opinion polls to be used in applying the criteria. Dr. Newport’s recommendations have been based on his professional judgment concerning the most suitable polls. In making his recommendations, he has considered the quality of the methodology the polling organizations employed, the size of the sample population polled, the reputation of the polling organizations, and the frequency of the polling conducted. In 2016, the polls relied upon were: ABC News/The Washington Post, NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, CBS News/The New York Times, Fox News and CNN-Opinion Research Corporation.

Has the CPD ever used Different Candidate Selection Criteria? In the 1988, 1992 and 1996 debates, the CPD used a multi-factor set of criteria designed to identify the leading candidates. The criteria were developed based on the work of an advisory panel of distinguished Americans, including individuals not affiliated with any party. The individuals serving on that advisory panel (and their then-current principal affiliation) included, among others: Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund; Mary Hatwood Futrell, President, National Education Association; Carla A. Hills, Partner, Weil, Gotshall & Manges; Barbara Jordan, Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas; Melvin Laird, Senior Counselor, Reader’s Digest; William Leonard, former President, CBS News; Newton Minow, Partner, Sidley & Austin; Richard Neustadt, Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Paul H. O’Neill, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Aluminum Company of America; Nelson W. Polsby, Professor, University of California at Berkeley; Jody Powell, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs; Murray Rossant, Director, Twentieth Century Fund; Jill Ruckelshaus, director of various non-profit entities; Lawrence Spivak, former Producer and Moderator, “Meet the Press”; Robert Strauss, Partner, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; Richard Thornburgh, Director, Institute of Politics, Harvard University; and Anne Wexler, Chairman, Wexler, Reynolds, Harrison & Schule.

A subcommittee of the advisory panel, headed by the late Professor Richard Neustadt of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, drew on the deliberations of the larger panel to develop nonpartisan criteria for the extension of debate invitations. While the panel’s recommended candidate selection criteria themselves were quite detailed, they included a review of three types of factors: (1) evidence of national organization, (2) signs of national newsworthiness and competitiveness, and (3) indicators of national public enthusiasm or concern, to determine whether a candidate had a realistic chance of election. The criteria did not consider any one piece of evidence to be determinative. Rather, a variety of evidence was to be reviewed in considering whether a particular candidate had a realistic chance of election. The criteria used in 1988 and 1996 were substantially the same.

In 1988, 1992 and 1996, the Board called upon an advisory committee chaired by Professor Neustadt to assist in applying the criteria. In each cycle, the CPD Board accepted the recommendations of the advisory committee in determining who qualified for inclusion in the debates under the criteria.

Why did the CPD Switch Criteria in 2000? The more streamlined criteria were adopted to provide greater transparency.

Has the Format of the CPD’s Debates Changed over the Years? Since 1987, the CPD has worked to develop debate formats that focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views. The CPD’s first set of debates used the model that had been employed for several previous cycles, one moderator with a panel of three journalists. By 1992, the CPD had introduced the town meeting, in which citizens ask questions of the candidates; used every cycle since, the town meeting is made up of approximately 100 citizens chosen by the Gallup organization as undecided voters from the metropolitan area of the debate site.

In 1992, a single moderator was used for the town meeting, the vice-presidential debate, and the first half of the final presidential debate. Since 1996, the CPD primarily has used a single moderator for all its debates.

In 2000, the CPD held its first debate in which the candidates were seated at a table with the moderator, a format that further encourages candid conversation without the physical separation of podiums. In 2012 and 2016, the CPD adopted a significantly different format for the first and last presidential debates: those two debates were divided into six 15-minute segments, during each of which the candidates discussed one major issue facing the country. One debate was devoted to domestic issues and one to foreign affairs. The topics for both debates were chosen by the moderators and announced several weeks beforehand. This change was the result of the CPD’s sustained effort over many years to foster meaningful discussion of the issues and to eliminate restrictive time constraints.

Since its organization, the CPD has encouraged its voter education partners to organize gatherings to view and discuss the debates in the United States and abroad to give feedback on many issues, including the effectiveness of various formats. The CPD is committed to continue to learn how to enhance the value of each of these civic education forums.

How are the Debate Moderators Chosen? The moderators are selected by the CPD several weeks before the debates. The CPD uses three criteria to select its moderators: a) familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign; b) extensive experience in live television broadcast news; and c) an understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views. The moderators alone select the questions to be asked, which are not known to the CPD or to the candidates. They do not meet with the campaigns, nor do the campaigns have a role in moderator selection. Starting in 1996, with a single exception, the CPD has used a single moderator for all of its debates in order to keep the focus on the candidates and their positions. The one exception was the second presidential debate in 2016, which was co-anchored by Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

How are the Sites and Dates for the Debates Selected? The CPD chooses sites for the debates by accepting bids from interested sites. Over the years, the CPD has held all but three of its debates on college and university campuses; this has allowed students to participate in the production process, and has prompted many of them to become involved in election-related projects. Sites that are interested in hosting debates submit proposals to the CPD in response to formal site selection guidelines that are posted approximately two years before the debates. CPD production staff review the proposals, conduct site surveys, and consult with members of the White House television pool and federal law enforcement in evaluating potential facilities. Each cycle, the CPD carefully considers early voting, religious and federal holidays, other milestone events (e.g. opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations), and White House television pool contractual conflicts, like Major League baseball, in selecting debate dates. The CPD is also mindful of the dates on which state ballots close in order to fairly apply its candidate selection criteria. The CPD's goal is to select dates that will allow for the largest possible viewing and listening audience. The final sites and dates for the debates are chosen by the CPD Board of Directors and announced approximately one year in advance; this allows for complete logistical preparation by the CPD and the media, and for the sites to take full advantage of debate-related educational opportunities on the campus and in the community.

Do the Debates Attract Large Audiences? The viewership of the presidential debates is significantly greater than any other political programming. From 1988-2020, the CPD’s debates have attracted audiences between approximately 35 million and approximately 100 million viewers, excluding viewership after the live broadcast. The viewership for the first 2020 presidential debate was 73.1 million domestically, according to Nielsen Media Research, which does not include international and many streaming platforms. In 2016, about six-in-ten voters (63%) said the presidential debates were very or somewhat helpful in deciding for which candidate to vote. Exit poll data for many years have shown that voters cite the debates more than any other single factor in considering how to cast their ballots.

Does the CPD Engage in any Activities other than Sponsorship of General Election Debates? In addition to sponsorship of the presidential debates, the CPD has engaged in a number of other voter education activities, each intended in a nonpartisan manner to enhance the educational value of the debates themselves. Each cycle, the CPD works with a wide range of voter education partners to expand the reach of the debates, particularly to first time voters.  These efforts have included DebateWatch gatherings, projects designed for Americans posted abroad, and the donation of podiums used in the debates to presidential libraries for use by schools and community groups.

In 2000, the CPD also produced a two-hour PBS special, “Debating our Destiny,” in conjunction with McNeil/Lehrer Productions. By partnering with voter education organizations including the Smithsonian Institution, AARP, Congressional Black Caucus Institute, Lifetime Television and KidsVoting USA, the CPD has reached out to citizens in the United States and abroad to maximize the educational value of the debates.

The CPD regularly advises sponsors of non-presidential debates (gubernatorial, congressional, mayoral, state legislative, city council) who seek advice regarding production issues, voter education initiatives and other aspects of organizing and broadcasting a debate.

Does the CPD do any International Work?  For more than 30 years, the CPD has shared its experiences with organizations in other countries that seek to make candidate debates part of their electoral process.  In collaboration with the National Democratic Institute, the CPD has participated in exchanges with more than 45 countries, offering comparative approaches to organizational and television production topics.  In this respect, the CPD and NDI have joined with new and experienced debate groups around the world to create an approximately 38-country network, Debates International, to share ideas and expertise.  Additional information can be found at