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Democratizing The Debates – Supplemental Materials


Held on September 26-27, 2013 — the 53rd anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate — the Working Group’s first meeting focused on debate topics, the format of the debates, moderators, timing and number of the debates, negotiations with candidates, audiences and interactivity, and debate sponsorship. Its second meeting, on November 8, 2013, concentrated on the role of media in future presidential debates and the logistics involved in producing them. The meeting included discussion with social and legacy media representatives and with those who have handled logistics for campaigns in recent debates. In the third session on December 16, 2013, the Working Group heard from scholars who have studied third-party candidacies as well as from individuals urging alternative criteria for inclusion of third-party candidates in debates. Convened in Cambridge, Md., in early February 2014, the fourth meeting reviewed what had been learned and identified research required to address unanswered questions. On March 27-28, 2014, the fifth meeting, which like the first, second and third was held at the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia, focused on the logistics involved in producing debates, the ways in which social media might be harnessed to increase the value and viewership for debates and the role of non-legacy networks. The group focused on financing models and on understanding the costs involved in alternative models of debate production. Shifting to the West Coast for its sixth session May 11-13, 2014, the group met with executives from major social media organizations to explore ways to increase audience interaction with debates and debate content. During its seventh session June 18-19, 2014, the Working Group discussed the drafting of this report.

The Working Group also:

  • discussed the history and value of presidential debates with Newton Minow, who played an indispensable role in the institutionalization of presidential debates.
  • met with broadcast and cable network representatives as well as with the director of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), Janet Brown, and separately with CPD co-chairs Mike McCurry and Frank Fahrenkopf.
  • convened a group of debate scholars to assist the Working Group in evaluating debate formats.

To support the work of the group, the APPC commissioned a Nielsen study of viewership patterns in and across debates, a series of focus groups on debates conducted by Peter D. Hart, and a survey of public attitudes about debates also conducted by Hart along with TargetPoint Consulting. Annenberg doctoral student Eunji Kim synthesized the content of the debate memoranda. APPC senior researcher Bruce Hardy synthesized NAES data on close following of debates and with Jamieson conducted a series of experiments on the effects of the immediate audience’s cheers and laughter on the home audience’s perception of the candidates. Kim and Hardy analyzed fall-off patterns in viewing within and across debates. Annenberg researchers Jennifer Isaacman and Deborah Stinnett identified differences in questions asked by those in town halls and journalists, and Jamieson synthesized the scholarly literature on debates’ importance and effects.

Working Group Biographies

Robert Barnett

Robert B. Barnett is a senior partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. He has worked on nine national presidential campaigns, focusing mainly on debate preparation. In addition to playing a role on the Democratic Party’s debate preparation teams in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, he played the role of George H.W. Bush in practice debates with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and practice debated Bill Clinton more than 20 times in 1992. In 2000, he played the role of Dick Cheney in practices with Joe Lieberman and in 2004 with John Edwards. In 2000 and 2006, he assisted Hillary Rodham Clinton with her Senate debate preparations and helped prepare her for 23 presidential primary debates in 2008. He assisted Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Robert Bauer

Bob Bauer represented President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 before the Commission on Presidential Debates and in negotiation with the Romney campaign of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Presidential nominees. As a specialist of politics law, Bauer has represented the Obama campaign and others on legal requirements governing candidate debates, including the rules of the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.

Joel Benenson

Joel Benenson, CEO of Benenson Strategy Group, has been President Obama’s pollster since his first run for the White House. Benenson is a former journalist whose career in polling has focused on the values and language of working and middle class voters. He was a member of Obama’s debate prep team through all 23 primary debates in 2008 and all six general election debates President Obama participated in, as well as Vice President Biden’s team in both elections. He has also been on prep teams for several Governors and U.S. Senators.

Charles Black

Charles R. Black is Chairman of Prime Policy Group. Black is best known as one of America’s leading Republican political strategists. He served as senior advisor to both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. In 1990, Black served as chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee and served as a principal public spokesman for President Bush in the 1992 presidential campaign. He served on President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns as a volunteer political advisor and surrogate spokesman. Most recently he served as the senior political advisor to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. As part of his involvement in nine presidential campaigns, Black has served as a debate negotiator and candidate preparer in four presidential campaigns. He has provided advice to those playing those roles in four other presidential campaigns.

Rick Davis

Rick Davis has been involved in local, national and international political campaigns since 1976. His first presidential campaign experience was for then-former Governor Ronald Reagan in 1979. During President Reagan’s re-election in 1984, Davis managed the delegate selection process during the primary and among other duties during the general election he directed logistic support for the debate team during the presidential debates. In 1988 and 1992 as a part of the George Bush Presidential campaign Davis served in a number of roles including helping to manage the support and logistics (spin room) for the presidential debates. In 1996, as Deputy Campaign Manager for Senator Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign, Davis served as one of the debate negotiation team members chaired at that time by Governor Carol Campbell. Davis’ duties as Deputy Campaign Manager included overseeing all debate planning, candidate preparation and on-site management. In 2000 and 2008 Davis served as Senator John McCain’s National Campaign Manager. In the later campaign he oversaw all debate negotiation, candidate preparation, media and logistics.

Anita Dunn

As White House Communications Director and senior advisor to President Obama’s presidential campaign, Anita Dunn directed conventional and new media communications strategies, as well as research, speechwriting, television booking, presidential events, and cabinet affairs press. Dunn has worked for a wide range of elected officials and candidates across the United States, including working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as Communications Director from 1987-1990 under Senator John Kerry and then-Senator John Breaux; leading Senator Bill Bradley’s political and communication teams from 1991-1993; serving as a consultant to the Democratic Senate Caucus in 1995, and again in 1999, during the impeachment trial of President Clinton; and working as then-Senate Majority Leader Senator Tom Daschle’s Communications Director in 2001. She has worked with a wide range of Democratic Party officials including Senator Evan Bayh, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Congressman John Dingell.

Ben Ginsberg

Benjamin Ginsberg, a partner at Jones Day, has represented the campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush before the Commission on Presidential Debates and in negotiations with their general election opponents of debate rules. He represents numerous political candidates and parties, members of Congress and state legislatures, Governors, corporations, trade associations, vendors, donors and individuals participating in the political process. In 2012 and 2008, he served as national counsel to the Romney for President campaigns. In 2004 and 2000, Ginsberg served as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns; he played a central role in the 2000 Florida recount. He advises on election law issues, particularly those involving federal and state campaign finance laws, government investigations, ethics rules, Internal Revenue Service issues impacting the political process, redistricting, communications law, and election recounts and contests.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the International Communication Association. She is the author or co-author of 18 books including: Packaging the Presidency (1984), Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate (1988); Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good (1997); and Presidents Creating the Presidency (University of Chicago Press, 2008). With Kate Kenski and Bruce Hardy, Jamieson wrote The Obama Victory (Oxford, 2010), winner of an American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in government and politics and the ICA outstanding book award. She was a member of the IOP-Twentieth Century Fund Taskforce on reform of debates convened by Newton Minow in 1986 (see Appendix Two).

Ron Klain

Ron Klain has served as Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the Vice President. In this capacity, he directs the staff in its various activities in support of the Vice President’s agenda. Klain also advises the Vice President on a wide array of policy and political matters. He was appointed to this position in November 1995. He previously served in the Clinton administration from January 1993 to February 1995. First, as Associate Counsel to the President, he directed judicial selection efforts for the White House. In this capacity, he also led the confirmation teams for high-profile nominees such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Attorney General Janet Reno. Later, Klain served as Counselor and Chief of Staff to Attorney General Janet Reno. As such, he advised Reno on numerous legal and policy matters, and coordinated the administration-wide effort to craft and win passage of the President’s Crime Bill, and the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. Prior to joining the administration, Klain served in the Clinton/Gore Campaign, as Washington Issues Director and as a Domestic Policy Specialist on the Campaign’s Debate Preparation Team. After serving on the Debate Working Group from September 2013 to September 2014, Klain resigned on October 23, 2014 upon being named Ebola response coordinator for the Obama Administration.

Zac Moffatt

Zac Moffatt was the Digital Director for Mitt Romney for President, where he managed a department of over 150 with a budget of over $100 million. The digital department was responsible for the campaign’s digital strategy: online advertising, social media, email marketing and online fundraising. Before joining the Mitt Romney campaign, Moffatt and Michael Beach founded Targeted Victory, a full service interactive advertising agency. It has quickly grown to serve over 170 federal and national clients including the Republican National Committee, Marco Rubio for Senate and FedEx. Prior to founding Targeted Victory, Moffatt served as the Deputy Director for Statewide efforts at Freedom’s Watch, the Director of Political Education for the Republican National Committee and the Victory Director for the Maryland Republican Party for Governor Robert Ehrlich and Senate candidate Michael Steele.

Beth Myers

Beth Myers has a long history of involvement in public issues and campaigns. Most recently, she was Senior Advisor for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Campaign Manager for his 2008 presidential race. Before that she served as Chief of Staff through all four years of the Romney governorship. She previously worked as a litigation associate at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP in Dallas, Texas. Starting on the 1980 Reagan campaign, Myers has worked for a slew of candidates. Working for Market Opinion Research, she developed and implemented GOTV campaigns in California, Texas, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Missouri. In 2008 and 2012, she participated in debate prep with Governor Mitt Romney for over 30 primary debates, and in 2012 she managed the debate preparations for Governor Romney’s three general election debates.

Neil Newhouse

Neil Newhouse is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs research firm, and was named Pollster of the Year by the trade publication Campaigns and Elections for its work in the 2002 election cycle. Newhouse was chief pollster for the 2012 Romney for President Campaign and involved in Governor Romney’s 2012 debate prep. He also worked on George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Newhouse has worked in public opinion research for more than 25 years, directed the research for thousands of individual projects and has experience in every aspect of opinion research. During the 2008 election cycle, Newhouse was the Republican partner for the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls and he has twice been named as one of the Money 20 political consultants in the country who make a difference. Newhouse has won praise from both sides of the political aisle, having worked on numerous Gubernatorial, Senate and Congressional campaigns. He was described by Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell as one of the most respected pollsters in the country and recruited by Senator Joe Lieberman to provide polling and strategic guidance in his successful 2006 Independent bid for U.S. Senate in Connecticut.

Jim Perry

Jim Perry served as an advisor to Governor Mitt Romney during preparations for his 2012 general election debates. He has helped numerous candidates prepare for debates including former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for whom Perry also served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy Director. Perry currently is an investment banker at Morgan Stanley.

Joe Rospars

Joe Rospars is the founding partner and creative director of Blue State Digital. For both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Rospars was President Barack Obama’s principal digital strategist and advisor, overseeing the digital integration of the unprecedented fundraising, communications, and grassroots mobilization effort. The digital arm of the campaign provided the backbone of design and branding both online and off and engaged a record-breaking number of Americans through mobile, social, video, and web platforms. Prior to the Obama campaigns, Rospars led Blue State Digital’s work with Governor Howard Dean, from the founding of Democracy for America to Dean’s historic 50-state strategy and the 2006 election victories.

Michael Sheehan

Michael Sheehan has been a member of the Debate Prep team for every Democratic Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidate since 1988. He has also prepared numerous Democrats for their Congressional state-wide debates. For the Obama and Clinton administrations alike, he has coached Inaugural Addresses, States of the Union, prime time addresses, and press conferences. One of America’s leading communications trainers and strategists, his expertise embraces every format and every forum whether media interview, major speech or high-stakes Q&A. His ability to help people communicate at the highest possible level was dubbed by New York Magazine as “the Sheehan effect.”

Stuart Stevens

For 25 years, Stuart Stevens has been the lead strategist and media consultant for political campaigns such as those of Senator Rob Portman, Senator Roy Blunt, Governor Haley Barbour, Governor Tom Ridge and President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Most recently, Stevens was lead strategist for Governor Mitt Romney’s 2012 primary and general election presidential races. Beginning his political career in his native Mississippi, Stevens worked on Thad Cochran’s campaigns.


1960 Debates:

In February 1959 in the Lars Daly case, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that newscasts were covered by the equal time provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934. Congress responded by amending Section 315 to exclude bona fide newscasts, regularly scheduled interviews, programs, and on-the-spot reporting of bona fide news events. That initial piece of legislation did not include debates. On June 27, 1960, Congress passed a joint resolution (S.J. 207) temporarily suspending the “equal time” provision for the 1960 presidential and vice presidential candidates. As CBS president Frank Stanton noted, “At midnight November seventh we automatically reverted to the equal time provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act, as revised, which, by requiring broadcasters to give equal time to all candidates of all parties including splinter groups and faddists, for all practical purposes outlaws broadcasts of face-to-face meetings” (in Kraus, 1962, p. 66).

Shortly after being nominated, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy accepted the networks’ invitation to appear in “The Great Debates.” Each saw an advantage in debating. For Kennedy, the debates were an opportunity to dispel the notion that he was too young and inexperienced to be president; for Nixon, the debates seemed an opportunity to showcase his skills both as a television performer and debater. NBC board chairman Robert W. Sarnoff emphasized that the Kennedy-Nixon debates:

Do not represent a donation of free time to the candidates. They are rather an exercise of broadcast journalism in which the candidates have agreed to appear within a framework calculated to stimulate a dignified, genuinely informative airing of their views, and to test those views against each other.

Details concerning the 1960 debates were “worked out in protracted negotiations—twelve meetings in all—between representatives of CBS, NBC, ABC, and the Mutual Broadcasting System, and advisors to the candidates,” note Minow and Sloan (1987, p 12). “The sponsorship of the individual debates was determined by lot…” (Minow and Sloan, 13).

1976 Debates:

Behind in the polls, in his convention acceptance address incumbent Republican Gerald Ford challenged his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, to debate. The challenger accepted. As a result, for the first time in history an incumbent debated a challenger. A vice presidential debate was held as well. Because the FCC’s 1975 Aspen decision held that debates not sponsored by a broadcaster were “bona fide news events,” the 1976 presidential debates were able to be sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Despite reservations, the League acceded to candidate demands that there be no reaction shots of the audience. Reliance on a press panel to pose questions was widely criticized by reporters and academics as was the fact that the League had permitted the candidates to decide the rules under which the debates would occur.

1980 Debates:

The 1980 debates were also sponsored by the League, which proposed the same schedule as 1976: three presidential and one vice presidential debate. With John Anderson running as an independent, the League set criteria to determine eligibility to participate in debates that included passing a 15% threshold in public opinion polls and sufficient ballot eligibility to be elected. When the incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a debate with Anderson, a League-sponsored debate between Anderson and Republican party nominee Ronald Reagan was held on September 21. By contrast it was vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and not vice president Mondale who refused to participate in a vice presidential debate with Anderson’s vice presidential nominee Patrick Lucey. After Anderson fell below the League’s threshold for eligibility, a Carter-Reagan debate was held on October 28, a week before the election. The fledgling cable network CNN included Anderson in the debate by giving him the opportunity to respond to the questions offered to Carter and Reagan. Again the League acceded to the demands of the candidates. So for example, the panelists for the Carter-Reagan debate were selected by joint agreement of the two campaigns.

1983: A Twentieth Century Fund Task Force concluded: “The public is not well served when debates are negotiated in the heat of the fall campaign and when the candidates’ tactical advantages become more central to the negotiations than the public interest” (In Minow and Sloan, 35).

1984 Debates:

Although the FCC had altered the Aspen rule to permit networks to sponsor debates, the League retained that franchise in 1984, sponsoring two presidential and one vice presidential debates.

1985: On November 26, 1985, Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, the chairs of the two major parties, issued a “Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances” which declared that “to better fulfill our parties’ responsibilities for educating and informing the American public and to strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process, it is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic National Committees.”

1985: In February 1985, the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown formed a 40 person bipartisan Commission on National Elections co-chaired by Robert Strauss and Melvin Laird. Issued in April 1986, the Commission report endorsed the Fahrenkopf and Kirk memorandum and recommended that the two major political parties institutionalize debates by forming an organization responsible for running them and by securing the commitment of their respective candidates to participate in them.

1986: In 1986, the Harvard Institute of Politics-Twentieth Century Fund formed a 30 person study group chaired by Newton Minow.

In December 1986, Minow, who had played a key role in televised U.S. presidential debates throughout their history, convened a conference to evaluate 10 of his recommendations to improve the functioning of presidential debates:

  1. Quadrennial presidential debates should be institutionalized.
  2. The Democratic and Republican parties should make firm commitments to future presidential debates as an important contribution to the public interest.
  3. The Democratic and Republican parties should establish a bipartisan Presidential Debates Organization now to administer the 1988 debates.
  4. The Presidential Debates Organization should have an Advisory Committee composed of a broad, diverse group of public citizens.
  5. The Presidential Debates Organization should set the time, number, and location of presidential debates for the 1988 campaign well in advance, preferably in 1987.
  6. At least three presidential debates, and one vice presidential debate, should be scheduled. The debates should begin immediately after Labor Day and should conclude by the third week of October.
  7. The use of journalists as questioners should be eliminated in favor of allowing the candidates the opportunity of questioning each other.
  8. The question of third-party candidates should not undermine the goal of institutionalizing debates between the Democratic and Republican party candidates. (That question can be considered, in all its complexity, in the context of a guaranteed minimum of debates between the major party candidates.)
  9. To insure third party access, other avenues, such as free television time for candidates, should be explored and adopted.
  10. As in 1960, Congress should suspend Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act for presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 1988 election.

1987: On February 18, 1987, the chairs of the two major political parties formally announced the existence of a 10 member Commission on Presidential Debates which they would co-chair. The Commission was established to sponsor vice presidential and presidential debates.

1988 Debates: Both the League of Women Voters and the Commission on Presidential Debates announced dates for fall 1988 debates. When the League rejected the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding that the campaigns handed to both the Commission and the League, and the Commission agreed to its terms, the Commission became the sponsor of the two presidential and one vice presidential debate of 1988. Of particular concern to the League was the absence of the chance for follow-up questions.

APPENDIX THREE: Youngest Group Least Likely to Watch Most of Debate

2012 Debate Viewing—Length

By Age (Among Debate Viewers) (N=892)18-34 (A)35-49 (B)50-64 (C)65 + (D)Total
All/Most (collapsed)75%BCD88%A85%A89%A84%
Whole debate42%D41%D45%D59%ABC46%
Most of the debate33%B47%AD39%D30%BC38%
Some/a little (collapsed)25%BCD11%A15%A11%A16%
Just some of the debate21%BCD7%A12%A10%A13%
Just a little of the debate4%4%D3%1%B3%

APPENDIX FOUR: 1960-2012 Household Ratings Trends: Presidential Debates

Chart Depicting Household Rating Trends for Presidential Debates

APPENDIX FIVE: Elements in memoranda of understanding

Focus of Debates

From 1988 to 2012, the debates concentrated on two broad issue areas: domestic policy/economic policy and foreign policy/national security.
In 2012, the Committee announced specific topics under each issue (not mentioned in MOU) area prior to the debate. For the first presidential debate on domestic policy, topics included economy, health care, the role of government, and governing. For the third presidential debate on foreign policy, they included America’s role in the world, war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, Middle East and terrorism, and rise of China.

Format of Debates


General agreement
(1) No opening statement by candidate (Exception: 1996)
(2) A closing statement that does not exceed 2 minutes
(3) Order determined by a coin toss
Change over time
(1) The length of a closing statement: 2 minutes (1988-2004) vs 90 seconds (2008)
  1. In 2012, whether closing statement for the third presidential debate would be 90 seconds or 2 minutes was resolved by a coin toss.

Props & Notes:

General agreement
(1) Neither candidate shall be permitted to carry in notes or any other materials
(2) Moderator must interrupt if a candidate uses a prop (2000, 2004)
(3) Neither candidate may reference or cite any specific individual sitting in a debate audience (2008, 2012)

Neither film footage nor video footage in a debate may be used publicly (1988)

In 1988, the MOU did not categorically prohibit the use of excerpts. Instead it stipulated that excerpts not be used out of context or in a false or deceptive manner.

Order of Questioning:

General agreement
(1) The same question is to be asked of each candidate and the order then reversed.
(2) The order of questioning is determined by a coin toss.
(3) The winner of a coin toss shall have the option to take the first or second question. The order of closing statement is determined by reversing the order.

Apportioning of Time:

A moderator is responsible for all time limits and shall interrupt when a candidate exceeds the permitted time limit.
Specific time segments were agreed to in 2008 and 2012.
  • 2008: 9 nine-minute segments (2 minutes for each candidate + 5 minutes for open discussion)
  • 2012: 6 fifteen-minute segments (2 minutes for each candidate)

Direct Address/Questioning:

In general direct candidate-to-candidate questioning has been banned. Exceptions are made for rhetorical questions. In 2008, this agreement was in force only in the second presidential debate (town hall).

Town Hall Audience Questions:

General agreement
(1) A moderator shall exercise full authority to select the questions from the audience and expand discussion
Change over time
(1) Earlier debates allowed moderator to ask brief follow-up questions to clarify.
(2) Audience is asked to submit questions to the moderator prior to the town hall debate (since 2000).
(3) Prior to the debate, campaigns will be told the method used to select the citizens in the town hall (since 2000).
(4) Moderators are asked not to “coach” the questioners (since 2008).
In 2008, the moderator used questions submitted on the Internet, which constituted 1/3 of the total questions.

Press Panelist Format (Only applicable to 1988 and 1992):

Besides having a moderator, the presidential debates in 1988 and 1992 had a press panelist format in which selected panelists asked questions of candidates.
General agreement on panelist selection
Each side submits 6 to 10 panelists. When 2 or more possible panelists are agreed upon, these names will be submitted to the Commission which will select one panelist from each list. For the third panelist, the Commission submits a list of 10 possible panelists to each side and then picks one from mutually agreed upon panelists. Each debate will have different panelists. Panelists were drawn from following institutions.

First Presidential Debate: Atlanta Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, ABC News
Second Presidential Debate: ABC News, Newsweek magazine, NBC News
First Presidential Debate: The Boston Globe, ABC News, Freedom Forum
Third Presidential Debate: Reuters, CNN, United Press International

The press panelist format was abandoned after the 1992 debate.


Moderator selection rule:

In general each side submits 1-2 possible moderators. When each agrees upon at least 1 possible moderator from the other’s list, the name will be submitted to the Commission which will then select moderator for mutually accepted candidate (1988, 1992, 1996).
Candidates have agreed to follow the Commission’s recommendation (since 2000).

Number of moderators:

Different moderators for each debate (1988, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
One moderator for three presidential debates (2000)

Moderator role:

General agreement
The moderator will open the program, monitor length of answers, identify each topic before the questions are asked and ensure that questions are balanced.
Change over time
The 2008 and 2012 MOUs stipulate that the moderator shall not ask the candidates for a “show of hands” or make similar calls for response.
(1) The moderator was expected to ask follow-up questions during the second presidential debate. (1992)
(2) The moderator shall ensure that candidates address at least 16 questions. (2004)

Timing and Debate Locations

1st Presidential Debate2nd Presidential Debate3rd Presidential DebateVice Presidential Debate
Average34 days24 days18 days29 days
1st Presidential Debate2nd Presidential Debate3rd Presidential DebateVice Presidential Debate
1988Winston-Salem, NCLos Angeles, CAN/AOmaha, NE
1992St. Louis, MORichmond, VAEast Lansing, MIAtlanta, GA
1996Hartford, CTSan Diego, CAN/ASt. Petersburg, FL
2000Boston, MAWinston-Salem, NCSt. Louis, MODanville, KY
2004Coral Gables, FLSt. Louis, MOTempe, AZCleveland, OH
2008Oxford, MSNashville, TNHempstead, NYSt. Louis, MO
2012Denver, COHempstead, NYBoca Raton, FLDanville, KY

Number of Debates

Except for 1960 when there were four presidential debates and 1988 and 1996 which had two presidential debates, there have been three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

Audience and Interactivity

Audience question
Changes in managing audience questions

No specific limitation on audience questions
Moderator is permitted to ask brief follow-ups to clarify ambiguous questions from audience

Restrictions Added Since 2000

(1) Follow-up questions from audience are prohibited
(2) Audience shall submit their questions to the moderator before the debate
If any audience member poses a question or makes a statement that is different from the one that the audience member earlier submitted to the moderator, the moderator will cut off the questioner
The moderator shall not ask follow-up questions or comment on questions asked by audience

Audience instruction
Audience is asked not to applaud or participate by any means other than silent observation except as provided by the agreed upon rules of the town hall debate
Audience selection in town hall debate
(1) A certain number of uncommitted voters would be selected by

  • An independent research firm (1992, 1996, 2000)
  • Gallup Organization (2004, 2008, 2012)

(2) The number of people in audience

  • Approximately 250 people (1992, 1996)
  • Approximately 100-150 people (2000, 2004, 2008)

APPENDIX SIX: Audience Reaction Studies

The only major published study of general election debate audience reactions showed that they are able to affect viewers’ perceptions of a candidate. In four experiments testing the impact of audience reaction on viewers’ rating of the candidates’ debate performance and traits, Fein, Goethals, and Kugler16 found consistent effects. APPC studies conducted for the Working Group confirm these findings.

Overall Design of the Studies

Participants for the APPC study of the effects of audience reaction in debates were recruited from Amazon’s crowd sourcing platform Mechanical Turk which is a web service run by designed to crowd-source Human Intelligence Tasks (HIT). Participants were randomly assigned to condition (around 300 respondents per condition) and either exposed to the actual debate clip with no editing, a clip with debate reactions edited out in a way that looked and sounded natural, or a control/baseline condition with no debate material. To orient those in the control condition to the post-test questions, after exposure all participants were shown a screen shot of both candidates with their names superimposed on their pictures.
Although we randomized conditions, we note that samples collected from Mechanical Turk are not entirely representative of the general U.S. population. So, for example, the demographic profile of the sample (Table 1) shows that the sample is younger, more male, less Black, more Asian, less Hispanic, more highly educated, and more left leaning politically than the general U.S. population. This distribution is consistent across the samples of the two studies reported here and other published studies evaluating Mechanical Turk.

Experiment 1

The first experiment used the 1984 Reagan/Mondale debate clip noted earlier in which Reagan dismissed concerns about his age.

Trewhitt: Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for 2 or 3 weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest President in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
Reagan: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
Prolonged audience laughter and applause
Reagan: If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, “If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
Trewhitt: Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over, but I’ll go on to another question.

Participants randomized to the first condition were shown the clip in its entirety including the audience laughter. Those randomized to the second condition saw the same clip with the audience laughter edited out. (The video faded out after Reagan said “youth and inexperience” and faded back in before he said “it was Seneca.”) Those randomized into the third condition were not exposed to any of the debate clips.
After viewing the clips the respondents were asked to rate the favorability of the candidates on a one (very unfavorable) to eleven (very favorable) scale. Figure 1 charts the results of audience reaction on the favorability of the candidates. Exposure to the debate clip with the full audience reaction significantly affected the favorability of both candidates compared to baseline. As one would expect, the impact is much greater for Reagan than for Mondale.

Chart showing the impact of debate audience reaction on the favorability of Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale
Figure 1. The impact of debate audience reaction on the favorability of Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale

Experiment 2

The stimulus for our second experiment is an exchange from the October 5, 1988 debate between Republican Vice President Nominee Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen:

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would
ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator Bentsen.
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged audience shouts and applause) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the –
Woodruff: (To audience) Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.
Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Audience shouts and applause)
Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator – and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

The design of this experiment is similar to the first but with five conditions instead of three: Condition 1 is the actual clip with no edits, condition 2 edits out the audience reaction to Bentsen, condition 3 edits out the reaction elicited by Quayle, condition 4 edits out the reactions to both candidates.
Audience reactions had a significant impact on the favorability and perceptions of the candidates (Figure 2). Those in the baseline condition rated Bentsen only slightly more favorably than Quayle while the difference in ratings in the full clip condition is a little over 2 scale points. When the reaction to Bentsen is edited out, his favorability drops and Quayle’s increases. When the reaction to Quayle’s is edited out in condition 3, his ratings are lower than in condition 2 but higher than condition 1 suggesting that this audience response had a negative effect on reception of the Republican vice presidential nominee. All differences are statistically significant.

A chart showing the impact of debate audience reaction on the favorability of Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen
Figure 2: The impact of debate audience reaction on the favorability of Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen


  1. Chaired by Anita Dunn and Beth Myers, the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group included: Robert Barnett, Bob Bauer, Joel Benenson, Charles Black, Rick Davis, Benjamin Ginsberg, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ron Klain, Neil Newhouse, Zac Moffatt, Jim Perry, Joe Rospars, Michael Sheehan and Stuart Stevens (for bios and a description of the meetings held by the Working Group, see Appendix One).
  2. “General Election Debates: 1960-2012.” Presentation by Josephine Holz to the Annenberg Debate Working Group – December 16. 2013 – slide 17
  3. Nielsen, NPM, 7/3/14-7/30/14, Mon-Sat 8-11p/Sun 7-11p/A18-49 (000), A18-34 (000). See Retrieved August 4, 2014.
  4. A 2014 American Press Institute study found that “Among smartphone owners, 78 percent report using their device to get news in the last week. Seventy-three percent of tablet owners use their device to get news. And people with more devices tend to enjoy following the news more….Fully 4 in 10 Americans say they got news in the last week from social media, through platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.” Retrieved August 4, 2014. An October 2013 Pew survey reported that “Overall, about half of adult Facebook users, 47%, “ever” get news there. That amounts to 30% of the population.” Retrieved August 4, 2014
  5. Jones, J. M. (2014, January 8). “Record-High 42% of Americans Identify as Independents.” Retrieved August 4, 2014.
  6. Nielsen report commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “General Election Debates: 1996-2012 Dec 9, 2013, p.7.
  7. Nielsen report commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “General Election Debates: 1996-2012 Dec 9, 2013, p.4.
  8. Nielsen report commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “General Election Debates: 1996-2012 Dec 9, 2013, p.4.
  9. For across time viewership data, see Appendix Three.
  10. Edward Hinck, Enacting the Presidency: Political Argument, Presidential Debates, and Presidential Character (Westport: Praeger, 1993).
  11. David Zarefsky, “Spectator Politics and the Revival of Public Argument,” Communication Monographs 59, no. 4 (1992): 412.
  12. Diana Carlin, Tammy Vigil, Susan Buehler, and Kelly McDonald, The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates: DebateWatch and Viewer Reactions, 1996-2004. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2009, 706. Kindle edition.
  13. Nielsen report commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Watching Presidential Debates Live VS. Time–Shifted” Addendum. 03.2014. p. 4
  14. Two of the groups were conducted among whites (one younger group and one older group); two with Hispanics (one younger voter session done in English with a Spanish moderator and the other done with older voters in Spanish); the fifth group was conducted among a cross section of all age groups and mixed races.
  15. Pew Research and Social Demographic Trends (2014 March 7) “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.” Available at:
  16. Fein, S., Goethals, G. R., & Kugler, M. B. (2007). Social influence on political judgments: The case of presidential debates. Political Psychology, 28(2), 165-192.