On Oct. 11, 1992, about 600 people filled the Washington University fieldhouse for the first presidential debate of the campaign season. Students not fortunate enough to be invited to the momentous event watched a live broadcast at the nearby Edison Theatre. Hundreds more observed the contest on a large-screen TV set up in the university's quadrangle. Off campus, more than 100 million television viewers tuned in nationwide. By all counts, the hosting of the spectacle brought honor and prestige to St. Louis and prompted the university to laud itself for being a bastion of American democracy. The claim bore merit, if for no other reason than the unexpected outcome.
In a Gallup Poll taken immediately after the debate, 47 percent of viewers believed Ross Perot -- the third-party candidate -- had outperformed both Republican incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. The Texas billionaire's homespun humor and pithy jabs managed to poke holes in the major-party candidates' bombastic rhetoric. Buoyed by Perot's success in St. Louis, his popularity ratings nearly doubled in the final weeks before the election. The populist candidate ended up netting more than 18 percent of the total votes cast that November, making his presidential bid a contributing factor in Clinton's victory.
History is not likely to repeat itself in this case. That's because the debates' producers figured it was in their self-interest to orchestrate a two-man show. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), chaired by former leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties -- and paid for by the major corporations that traditionally bankroll their candidates -- decided to keep the stage to themselves.
In 1996, the CPD laid down the law, albeit a vague one: "The criteria contemplate no quantitative threshold that triggers automatic inclusion in a Commission-sponsored debate." Instead, the commission would use "evidence of national organization," "signs of national newsworthiness" and "indicators of national enthusiasm or concern" to "determine whether a candidate has a sufficient chance of election." Those criteria effectively kept Perot in the wings in 1996.
The criteria for the 2000 debates -- the third of which is scheduled for Oct. 17 at Washington University -- have become even more prohibitively exclusive.
Under rules enacted in January by the CPD, eligibility is now restricted to candidates who achieve a 15 percent approval rating before the debates. The popularity index is based on an average compiled from five national polls: ABC/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal, CNN/USA Today/Gallup and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. The debate criteria shut out candidate Pat Buchanan, the titular standard-bearer of the splintered Reform Party, spawned by Perot's 1992 bid. They also keep at bay Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who has garnered the support of 3 to 10 percent of the electorate in recent months, judging from different polls.
Pollster Ken Warren, a political-science professor at St. Louis University, says that excluding presidential candidates from the debates on the basis of polling data is itself undemocratic. "To say that they should have 15 percent popularity in the polls before they're included in the debates is patently outrageous, because virtually no third-party candidate, at the beginning of a campaign, could ever hope to have 15 percent," Warren says. The longtime pollster has done survey work for Democratic candidates and for municipalities and tax districts, and he has conducted exit polling for the media. But he draws the line at exclusionary politics. "It's really a travesty that polls are used to influence the democratic process," he says.
There appears to be considerable support for this position among members of the electorate. A Fox News survey conducted in July found that more than two- thirds of the voters polled wanted Buchanan and Nader included in the debates, regardless of their ratings.
Nader has broadened his attacks beyond the issue of polling, charging that corporate sponsorship of the debates -- including the $550,000 donated by the Anheuser-Busch Cos. for the Washington University match -- violates federal campaign-finance law. In essence, he says, the corporations are making illegal campaign contributions to the Democrats and the GOP. Although the Republicans have some concerns about whether Buchanan will hurt Gov. George W. Bush's chances, Nader's candidacy poses a far greater threat to Vice President Al Gore and could cause the Democrats to lose control of the White House.
In June, Nader and the Greens filed a federal lawsuit in Boston -- where the first debate is scheduled for Oct. 3 -- challenging the Federal Election Commission regulation that permits private financing of the debates. Last week, Nader's attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Patti Saris to issue an injunction to halt the debates, pending a legal decision in the case. The judge is expected to rule in the next few weeks.
Specifically, Nader and the Greens are challenging the FEC regulation that allows the CPD -- a nonprofit corporation -- to receive millions of dollars in contributions from corporate sponsors. Their legal argument is based on a federal law, the Tillman Act, dating back to 1907. Congress enacted the law to prohibit corporations from using their wealth to influence the outcome of federal elections, and federal law is supposed to supersede agency regulations.
The CPD, which was formed in 1987, is headed by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. In addition to Anheuser-Busch, the CPD's sponsors include IBM, J.P. Morgan & Co. and the Philip Morris Cos.
Janet H. Brown, CPD executive director, says that the commission's policies are above reproach. "It is perfectly acceptable to take contributions from individuals, civic groups, foundations or corporations to meet the cost of the debate," Brown says. "It seems to me that the argument that Mr. Nader is making is over not just the funding mechanism but whether funders are being given influence over how the debates are put on. The answer is, our donors have absolutely no input into any decision we make about any aspect of the debates. We're in complete compliance with the FEC and IRS regulations."
In a prepared two-paragraph statement, Stephen K. Lambright, vice president and general counsel of Anheuser-Busch, says that the debates allow "a unique opportunity for voters to gain even more insight into candidates' views," adding that the company is "delighted to demonstrate our civic responsibility through serving as the national sponsor of the 2000 debates." Lambright's statement says nothing about the beer company's views on limiting the debates to just two candidates, however.
Scott Lewis, one of Nader's attorneys in Boston, sees corporate sponsorship as something more than "civic responsibility."
"The Commission on Presidential Debates is itself a corporation," Lewis says. "It's not a commission. It's just called a commission. It uses its own money and other money that is donated to it by other corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, to put on a debate that has the consequence of serving as a paid advertisement for the candidates who are permitted to participate in it. Well, if that's not influencing the election, I don't know what it's doing."
Off the electoral and judicial battlegrounds, the exclusionary policy of the CPD has had another unforeseen consequence: It has further galvanized the grassroots political movement that erupted in the streets of Seattle earlier this year, during the World Trade Organization's talks. Indeed, similar protests are being planned to correspond with the Oct. 17 debate at Washington University.
A local alliance, named the o17 Coalition after the Oct. 17 date (www.o17.org), is organizing demonstrations, scheduled for the week of the debate, that will focus attention on issues left unaddressed by Gore and Bush. In addition to the Gateway Greens, the coalition mostly comprises human-rights organizations, labor activists and student groups. Local organizers anticipate that their ranks will swell with protesters from around the country, who are already expressing interest in attending. With thousands taking to the streets at both the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively, earlier this summer, the U.S. Secret Service and local law-enforcement authorities can be expected to temporarily turn the Washington University campus into an armed compound by Oct. 17.
With Nader excluded, one protest goal will be to move the debate into the streets, says Shawn Kumar, a Washington University student and member of the o17 Coalition. "You look at this debate and you realize that it is a very closed and scripted event with two candidates," says Kumar. "The issues that they do address represent a very narrow spectrum. They both agree with the World Trade Organization. They both agree on NAFTA. They're both in favor of the death penalty. There are large movements in this country based on these alternative ideas, but they never get any airing. It's a systematic problem: It's in the media, it's in the political process."
For his part, Washington University political-science professor James Davis sees nothing wrong with the exclusive two-party format. "Frankly, I'm comfortable with the debate format that focuses attention on serious candidates, people who have a shot at the White House," says Davis. Establishing a cutoff level to winnow away undeserving candidates is appropriate, he says. There's nothing inherently wrong with corporate sponsorship funneled through the CPD, either, Davis says: "I don't see anything illegitimate about corporate support. It's not like they were supporting one candidate over the other."
What the current debate system does sanction, however, is support for only two candidates -- the Republican and the Democrat.
"The people who make up that commission are Republicans and Democrats," says Warren. "So they also have an enormous conflict of interest. And they know damn well what they're doing, too."