News Release

Three Sponsors Drop Presidential Debate Commission; Reform Groups Call for Openness

Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry

The Commission is co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Mike McCurry, former press secretary to Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Just days before the first debates organized by the Presidential Debate Commission, scheduled for Wednesday, Politico reports: “Philips Electronics has dropped its sponsorship of the 2012 presidential debates, citing a desire not to associate itself with ‘partisan politics,’ POLITICO has learned.

“Philips is the third and by far the largest of the original ten sponsors to pull its support, following similar decisions by British advertising firm BBH New York and the YWCA over the last week. Their decision to do so is seen as the result of intense lobbying efforts by advocacy organizations — primarily Libertarian supporters of former Gov. Gary Johnson — who oppose the exclusion of third-party candidates and who therefore believe the Commission on Presidential Debates is an anti-Democratic institution. …

“George Farah, the executive director of Open Debates, one of the groups leading the charge for debate reform, celebrated the news.

‘”This is a triumph for the debate reform movement,’ Farah told POLITICO. ‘These former sponsors no longer want to be affiliated with an anti-democratic commission that defies the wishes of the American people.’ …

“Last week, Open Debates and 17 other organizations called on the Commission to release the contract negotiated between the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns for the debates.”

Farah is executive director of Open Debates, which with 17 other groups — including Common Cause, Public Citizen, Rock the Vote, Judicial Watch, Public Campaign, FairVote, Demos, Democracy Matters, League of Rural Voters, and Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting — called on the “Commission on Presidential Debates to make public the secret debate contract that was negotiated by the Obama and Romney campaigns.”

“Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates, including how the format will be structured. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties, agreed to implement the debate contract. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press.”

Farah said today: “The Commission on Presidential Debates undermines our democracy. Because of the Commission’s subservience to the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the presidential debates are structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-averse candidates, not voters.”

Previous debate contracts negotiated by the major party campaigns “have contained anti-democratic provisions that sanitize debate formats, exclude viable third-party candidates and prohibit additional debates from being held” said Farah. For example, the 2004 debate contract negotiated by the Kerry and Bush campaigns contained the following provisions:

* “The parties agree that they will not (1) issue any challenges for additional debates, (2) appear at any other debate or adversarial forum with any other presidential or vice presidential candidate, or (3) accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate.”

* For all four debates: “The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions.”

* For the town-hall debate: “Prior to the start of the debate, audience members will be asked to submit their questions in writing to the moderator. … The moderator shall approve and select all questions to be posed by the audience members to the candidates.”

* For the town-hall debate: “Audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member’s microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question.”

Farah added: “The first presidential debate contract was negotiated by the Republican and Democratic campaigns in 1988. The League Women of Voters, which had sponsored previous presidential debates, refused to implement the contract and instead accused the campaigns of ‘perpetrating a fraud on the American voter.’ The newly-created Commission on Presidential Debates, meanwhile, readily implemented the 1988 contract and has sponsored every presidential debate since. The Commission now exercises a monopoly over the presidential debates and routinely executes debate contracts drafted by the Republican and Democratic campaigns.” Farah is author of the book No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.