Frank Fahrenkopf , Michael McCurry

Debating 2016

Air Date: January 23, 2016

Commission on Presidential Debates cochairs Frank Fahrenkopf and Michael McCurry discuss their vision for the general election debates.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The Commission on Presidential Debates has a solemn mandate to engage the leading general election candidates in discussion of serious public policy for the American people. Particularly in this primary season of the so-called outsider, producing debates as profit-making spectacles rather than genuine dialogue, the commission’s aspiration proves a challenge. Its co-chairs, founding member Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Michael McCurry join me exclusively to consider the non-partisan debate organizers’ history, objectives, and vision for the 2016 debates.

In recent months, the media, the candidates, and ultimately the public have indulged in what this observer would dub trickle-down discourse, a dumbing down of public life into a left and right litigation of zingers. So the question for these senior statesmen, in an age of virtual democratization, when more voices than ever are being heard, how will they flip the script so that the debates not only illuminate contrast among the candidates but also lead us toward a more constructive politics? Gentlemen?

FAHRENKOPF: Good to be with you, Alex.

HEFFNER: Thanks Frank.

FAHRENKOPF: I think that uh, the, the original purpose of the commission when it was formed back in uh, in 1987 and which led to the 1988 debates which were the first ones that we conducted, it was that our function, our role was education. Education of the American public. Trying to get those leading candidates for President of the United States to debate the issues that were of concern to the American people, and I think the important point that you made in the introduction here is that in our debates, uh, there are no ads, uh, it’s not a profit-making endeavor, we do it at university campuses to, to further that educational function, uh, and I think the nature and quality of, of what we attempt to do by digging down, drilling down, if you will, on issues so that we’re not just getting the answers, uh, of two minutes and one minutes response and 30-second response as existed years back when, when the commission started. We take the first and last debate, one’s usually on foreign policy, the other on domestic policy, we’ve divided it into 6, uh, sections, uh, and the moderator is encouraged to drill down on the issues that are named for each of those 6 sessions. So I think we, we’re in the position now going into 2016 where we can do a better job of informing the American public on the issues of the day and the stands of the 2 candidates or 3 candidates if there are 3.

McCURRY: And I think the key to it is to get these leading candidates for President, whoever they are and however many there are, talking to each other about the future of our country. I think these debates are much better when there’s a real conversation happening, when there’s a real and genuine, you know, dialogue about differences that exist and not just the quick soundbites, no. Of course it’s the media that decides what comes out of these debates that they want to feature, but I think if you are a voter and you watch the entire length of a 90 minute debate, you really do get some sense of what the candidates’ differences and what their hopes for the future are, and that’s what these debates should be.

HEFFNER: The addition of a particular time allotment for diving deep on a single issue, that was an evolution in format from 2008 to 2012?

FAHRENKOPF: Well there were a number of evolution … evolutionary changes really in format. For many, many years going back to when the debates first came online again in modern times with the, with the Nixon-Kennedy debate. It primarily was a moderator with some reporters. That changed, after 1992, we went to a single moderator. Uh, the, there was no longer a, a panel of reporters. So there have been changes that have come along with, with evolution, but the, the change of going from this very tight scripted minute and a half, two minute response to going forward with six 15 minute segments with the candidates knowing in advance, the moderators name, we name the subjects, we don’t, the commission doesn’t. You know, whether it’s on foreign policy, whether or not it’s going to be on, on the deficit. Hopefully that’ll be one of the things that’ll be discussed. For 15 minutes, the moderator gets those candidates hopefully as Mike says, to enter, you know, look at each other and debate each other more than just answering the moderator. That’s the goal and I think our first effort in 2012 proved to be successful and we hope it’ll be, uh you know, improved upon as we look at 2016.

McCURRY: You really have to get behind your press releases and your talking points if you’ve got a chunk of time like 15 minutes to explore some subject in some detail. But you know, at the end it’s up to the candidates, to, to the debate. I mean they have to, the moderator can only go so far in sort of putting the issue in play, but they, the candidates have to show up with something to say and really want to…

HEFFNER: And they agree on something infamously, famously called a memo of understanding.


HEFFNER: Which to Lincoln and Douglas might be an anomaly, right? Because if you were, if you were to establish that we’ve digressed somewhat from Lincoln and Douglas, is that acceptable to you?

FAHRENKOPF: Well, Lincoln and Douglas remember was a debate over the United States Senate,

HEFFNER: Exceptional, it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

FAHRENKOPF: Not a presidential debate and it was out in the boondocks of Illinois and there were a few people,

McCURRY: And it went on for hours and hours.

FAHRENKOPF: Hours and hours and hours. Uh,

McCURRY: I’m not sure…

FAHRENKOPF: So yeah, there’s a great deal of difference.

McCURRY: But, but that…

HEFFNER: The bandwidth though, the capacity to record for that number of hours is not, is, is amplified. You could have a non-stop, continual exchange and don’t the American public deserve that?

McCURRY: Well I think you know, what we will have that in practical effect now because what the, the debates themselves which are nationally televised are also then surrounded now by so much social media, uh, with you know, commentary before, commentary afterwards … it becomes part of really an ongoing debate and our first debate, in 2016, will be September 26th. It’s historically earlier because the conventions are gonna be early so that is really, if you think about it, at least a full month of really almost non-stop dialogue between the campaigns, the candidates and the American people about what the future will look like. One point that you mentioned, you mention that the cam—the campaigns love to get lawyers and aides involved in hashing out details. We step back from that. We say look, here’s the debate, uh, we structure it, we establish the format, we pick the moderators, we have already picked the locations, and we say show up.

FAHRENKOPF: We as a Commission do not sign it. And the moderators don’t sign it. It’s really an agreement between the two candidates as to what they’re gonna, how they’re gonna conduct, for example there’s been a clause, as far as I know, is that they pledged with each other that no segment of the debate will be turned into a campaign ad by the other. I mean that’s not in our ballpark, if they want to agree to that, they can agree to that.

HEFFNER: But what about the Q&A clause, that they can’t directly ask each other questions?

FAHRENKOPF: No absolutely not, now that’s, that’s what’s been going on with the Republican debates.

McCURRY: Right.

FAHRENKOPF: We always, we, we urge them to, we want them to…

HEFFNER: Ask each other questions.

FAHRENKOPF: Yeah, as far as I know there has never been, unless it’s a very, very old memorandum agreement, like I said, we’re not party to it so we don’t know what, what’s entirely in it, but uh, I’m not aware that in the general election debate there’s ever been an agreement they wouldn’t ask each other questions.

McCURRY: Yeah…

FAHRENKOPF: Maybe, maybe some years ago but clearly not in the last two cycles.

McCURRY: I think it is really critical for, for folks watching this to understand that we are talking just about the general election debates, uh, the ones that are closest to the election.

HEFFNER: And that first debate will be at Wright State University?

McCURRY: September 26th.


HEFFNER: In the critical swing state,

McCURRY: Of Ohio, and in fact we will be in Ohio, we’ll be in Virginia, we’ll be in Nevada and we’ll be in Missouri which are all states that you know, really do play a pretty critical role in the electoral college, so we’ve spread them out geographically but also tried to go to places where the campaigns would have an interest in being anyhow because they’re campaigning in battleground states.

HEFFNER: So you’ve certainly achieved a diversification of geography, uh, and I think you have urban, suburban, rural, which had been a criticism of past cycles, had been more registered in um, suburban or urban. A question here is what about the diversification of voices of the questioners? So you, you still intend to have single moderated debates, but there is as you alluded to Mike, a social media reality that young people in particular in order to be engaged in civil discourse need to see it on the, on, on Twitter, on Facebook, on social media applications. Right now as you brainstorm, how are you attempting to immerse these social media into the debate?

McCURRY: Well I, I think that will be the area in which we do the most innovation in the 2016 debates because you know, frankly the, the explosion of social media, the way in which people are using it, the way in which younger voters now, the first-time voters, 18 year old are really digital natives, they’ve grown up using these technologies in a very, they expect them. And they would be surprised not to have those available. So I would foresee us really using uh, pretty sophisticated ways to see what bubbles up from the internet, what really people are talking about, what kinds of questions emerge and then, you know, we, we do leave it to the moderator to journalistically make the question what, you know, make the judgment about editorially what has to be included but I think if we provide them an awful lot of good input that has come from something we structure on social media, I think it’s very possible that moderators will go with that and they’ll see what, you know, the conversation has been. This is why I, you know, we like to sometimes say yes there are 4 debates, there are 3 Presidential debates and one Vice President—Presidential debate but it really is a season of conversation and I think the social media inventions that we make this time will probably facilitate that.

FAHRENKOPF: And, and let me make clear there’s a differentiation here, with regard to them, millennials for example and those who are on social media wanting to watch the debate, we stream everywhere. I mean that, that, so going out, with what’s going on on, on, in that debate is going out through social media. In fact I think at the time, after the first debate, uh, 3 and a half years ago, uh, there were more tweets after the, during the debate than there’d ever been on any subject before. So I mean it’s outgoing that we’ve been I think very effective at. What Mike’s talkin’ about and where we wrestle with it is ingoing, how do we involve them, uh, those who are gonna be, uh, on their cellphones, on their iPads tweeting, how do we involve them? Is it possible to do it in a way that uh, preserves what we’re talking about here, the election of the President of the United States.

McCURRY: And another reason that’s important is that their voices are marginalized sometimes because they don’t have access to mainstream media, they don’t have the platform but I think uh, if we do this correctly and if we see surfacing out of the conversation, uh, interesting perspectives that maybe are not traditional, that’s some way in which obviously that could play then into the debates and we will, you know, see some uh, some different types of questions maybe. We, we do, we’re constrained, we historically have had only four moderators because there are only four debates and we use the single moderator platform, but we’ll have to think about how do we make sure that uh, that’s reflective of a broader cross-section. And, and that will be a challenge.

HEFFNER: So you obviously are considering the solicitation of questions via new media platforms that would be asked and answered, but there’s been a concern that’s developed, and I think this stems from the 2012 cycle, that the questions are rehearsed and that through the editorial control exhibited by a distinguished moderator like a Jim Lehrer or Bob Schieffer that they’re still in effect muzzling the, in the town hall debate, the opportunity for that back and forth that you saw in the 1992 campaign. What say you about the exchange, a prolonged exchange? In fact if you see it on the television screen or the monitor, it may only reinforce the idea that this question was vetted and determined to be legitimate.

FAHRENKOPF: First of all there are no vetting of questions, okay? There’s no vet—

McCURRY: We have no con—

FAHRENKOPF: Mike and I have no idea over what the moderator is going to ask. We don’t, other than in a division, you know?

McCURRY: But they, yeah or other than say look, I mean our moderators will say look we are, here are subjects that I intend to raise in these 15 minute chunks that we have, so, but look, I, I have worked now on both sides of this equation, I’ve prepared candidates, uh, including a President for these debates and an awful lot of time goes, uh, into staffing and preparing and briefing these candidates. So, if there’s a sense that they are over-rehearsed, it’s probably because they are. [LAUGHS] It’s probably because the campaign spent a lot of time trying to make sure that nothing really spontaneous happens and that’s why we’re moving away from these highly-regulated structures and more to a free-flowing-type debate where you could see some more genuine conversation. But, but the point I made though is there’s only so much the Commission can do, only so much the moderators can do. The candidates have to show up ready to, to debate. I mean some would argue that President Obama in the first debate in 2012 in Denver really did not look like he wanted to be in that debate and you know, it probably showed and of course he did much better in the subsequent debates I think but…

HEFFNER: What can be the long-term educational output from these debates that we have not seen yet in this country?

McCURRY: Well I, again you know, if candidates duck the questions and if they just give you a lot of political boilerplate, that, that’s pretty obvious and I, I think that one of the things we have, we have a very amplified discussion because of what’s happening out on the internet and what social media does, I think the candidates would hear pretty quickly if they did not really get to the point that the American people uh, wanted to hear. So there, that the great check on this is the fact that we have real voters watching this, we get 70, maybe as many as 80 million people who—

FAHRENKOPF: Sometimes 90 million people.

McCURRY: And they, so these are serious moments, it’s why the campaigns take it uh, so seriously. So I don’t, I don’t, I think it’s likely that we will see a greater effort by the campaigns to really try to put something out there and it’s important, someone on that stage will be elected president of the United States. And when they get elected, they better have laid out some kind of program so the country has some sense well this is what we’re voting for, this is the direction we’re going, ‘cause it’s in their interest if, if they’re elected to be able to effectively govern, having laid out more of a platform that the people know about.

HEFFNER: In this election year, it seems increasingly possible that a plausible debate stage would add a podium, or in the case of a table like this a chair. And I know you’ve been pushing for tables rather than podiums, right?

FAHRENKOPF: That’s right.

HEFFNER: So is the 15 percent polling criteria a, a sufficient metric to combat kind of when you think of constitutional law the oppressive tyranny of the majority? Is 15 percent a single criteria that definably means that a candidate should get into the debate? Or should it, should it be more nuanced than that?

FAHRENKOPF: We are required by the statutes that govern The Commission that we must have a, a clear uh, transparent, uh, criteria that’s out there that’s objective,

McCURRY: And estab—and established in advance.

FAHRENKOPF: An objective criteria established in advance so that everyone knows what they must meet in order to, to get in the debate. We, we have every, every cycle we look at the 15 percent and say should we move it? Should we, should we raise it, should we lower it? Are there other criteria? We just spent 3 or 4 months really doing a very in-depth job, uh, thank goodness one of our members is a former chairman of the League of Women Voters and she was the chairman of our special committee and the decision was made to leave it at 15.


FAHRENKOPF: Because that was felt to be the, the level, talking about debates that take place as Mike indicated a month before the November election, of where the individuals who have a realistic chance, if you look at our, our documents, a realistic chance of being elected governor, or excuse me, President of the United States, that that’s the standard that, that we felt was the right standard. And…

HEFFNER: And that is the standard that will be applied in the 2016 race.

FAHRENKOPF: That’s going to be applied, it was the standard the League of Women Voters used in 1980, we played with a different standard, uh, for a number of years, up until 2000, it was more subjective of, it was how many inches of newspaper, uh, writing the candidate got, how many times they’ve been interviewed, and we went back to the League of Women Voters’ 15 percent because we felt that that was clear and it was an objective standard that was, would be clear to everyone a year ahead of time that okay, we’ve got to get into, uh, a 15 percent to get in the debates. And we are also now talking about a situation where when John Anderson got invol—got in the debates in uh, in 1980, he was at 17 percent, fell below for the second debate and so the second debate was uh, was President Carter and Ronald Reagan, well President Carter refused to debate in the first debate. Uh, we, you know, we think that that is the right standard at this point in time and that was the, the judgment and it’s been sustained.

We have been challenged on the 15 percent rule in federal court, before the Federal Election Commission over and over again, and it’s withstood the legal challenges. So it’s the, the decided, decision of our board that that’s the right standard.

McCURRY: And you have to have, I think it’s important to understand, there has to be some criteria because there are literally dozens and dozens of candidates for President of the United States.

FAHRENKOPF: 200, there’ll be 200, mark my word, there’ll be 200 people who file.

McCURRY: Which is a surprise to most people but there are in, in theory people who are on enough ballots that they could conceivably win the electoral college majority and they are constitutionally eligible because they’re the right age and so on and so forth. So you have to have, that would be a free-for-all that would not be educational for the American people if everyone came, so you have to have some kind of criteria and you have made a very, very interesting point. The dynamic in the electorate right now and the dissatisfaction with the two major political parties could very conceivably allow an independent or a third-party candidate to emerge and, and we are very clear that they would be welcome in these debates if they rise up to a 15 percent level of support in, uh, 5 different reliable and we think uh, uh, valid, uh, valid national uh, opinion polls, which would be taken in the fall as we get close to the election.

HEFFNER: So let’s disabuse the American people of the idea that because you’re party bosses in effect, right?

FAHRENKOPF: Oh we, no no…

HEFFNER: To use this old Chicago lingo. That, that you think, you don’t necessarily believe that it would be disadvantageous to the functioning of, of this republic to have another voice.

FAHRENKOPF: Oh we, no no, no no, we don’t argue with that at all.

HEFFNER: In fact do you, do you hope that there is another voice represented in the conversation?

FAHRENKOPF: I think it would be, I think it would be great.

HEFFNER: How has the debate system evolved since you took over qualitatively?

FAHRENKOPF: Oh I think, I think just what Mike and I were talking about a little while ago. I think taking that first and last debate and having a 15 minute segment dedicated to one subject where the moderator drills down and get the candidates, I think that is a remarkable change from when it was you know, you have two minutes to respond, the other uh, candidate gets one minute and then you have 30 seconds and then you have to move on to another subject. There’s no follow-up when there should be follow-up so that’s the really big change I think and, and in the best interest of the American public.

McCURRY: But, but you know, I mean it’s a good question, I mean, candidates have become much more sophisticated in the way they prepare for these debates, because they know they’re gonna get covered, they know that many, for many people what happens after the debate as the media reports on it, as the pundits show up and start dissecting,

HEFFNER: Spin room.

McCURRY: The spin room happens and frankly we, we believe there’s a, there’s a little too much of that. We would prefer people, you know, turn off all the punditry and just focus on what the candidates have to say and really listen carefully before they start making judgments about who won, who lost, uh, and but you know, my point is campaigns look for sometimes a way to crystallize an argument or they look for those moments and they prepare for uh, they prepare accordingly for the candidate to try to draw out some particular point. And that, that, that’s really up to the candidates. We don’t control that, I mean we can’t be responsible for what they do once they’re on the stage, we just have to make sure that we’ve got the best opportunity for them to make the case they want to make about the future of the country.

FAHRENKOPF: And Alex, we considered a number of proposals that have been presented to us. And I, I think one in particular was that there would be a third primary. It would be held for independents and third party cand … we wouldn’t do it, we have no mechanism to do that. And it would be produced by I think I told you earlier before we were preparing for the show by the producer who does Shark Tank and, and Survivor on television and that there would be a series of these debates and then when the final, uh, debate took place, there would be voting online and that person who had the most online votes would be in the debate. Now and we’ve indicated to the people putting that forward, well if that person’s at 15 percent, and they ought to if they’ve survived this uh, primary and particularly with social media today it’s so much easier to get your message out than perhaps it was back in 1980, if they are at 15 percent, there will be a place on that stage for them.

McCURRY: And one, one point we haven’t made yet and I want to credit my, my co-chair here because he was one of the founders of this commission. There’s nothing that requires presidential candidates to debate. We went through a long period of time after that first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 where…

FAHRENKOPF: 16 years.

McCURRY: Where candi—candidates just decided we’re not gonna debate and, and what’s happened as a result of the work of this commission is that they’ve more or less been institutionalized. Last time in 2012 was the first time an incumbent president, President Obama just freely agreed to participate in a debate sponsored by the commission. That was a real breakthrough because it means now that the American people expect these debates to happen and that, that wasn’t always the case and it really is I think a credit to the commission that we’ve been able to achieve that.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you one final question, gentlemen. You’ve often said that when you go into a commission, uh, meeting, a board meeting, you’re wearing your American flag hat, you’re not wearing your DNC or RNC hat. So what is your wish for the candidates to free themselves of the party shackles?

McCURRY: We see ample evidence that the American people are dissatisfied with the polarization that exists. They, they don’t give members of Congress very high ratings. They only give fifty percent approval to President Obama, they, they are dissatisfied with our political system, that’s a very strong feeling. The number of people who are independents who don’t affiliate with the Republicans or the Democrats, that’s on the rise. As I strongly suspect that if I were in one of these debates and trying to speak to the American people, I would not come across as a hardcore partisan. I’d be talking about how we bring the country together, how we work together with people from different perspectives and other points of view to build something up that will move this country in a better direction.

HEFFNER: When do you decide when…

FAHRENKOPF: And, that’s different…

HEFFNER: Yeah sure.

FAHRENKOPF: That’s different than this primary, what we’re seeing right now,

McCURRY: Right. Right, we’re

FAHRENKOPF: We’re seeing the Democrats moving to the left, the Republicans moving to the right to try to appeal to their base.


FAHRENKOPF: That’s not what you see when we get hopefully to our debates.

HEFFNER: When do you decide the moderators?

FAHRENKOPF: That, we will, we’re performing a special, we’re gonna look at format with all these things that Mike’s talked about, how we do social media, that’ll be later next year. The moderators we usually don’t do until a week or so before the debate because some of them are working and we don’t want to compromise them ..

McCURRY: And they, they get, they, they have enormous pressure on them,


McCURRY: Once they’re named publicly, everyone wants to, you know,

HEFFNER: Is, is Jon Stewart among the list of possible moderators this cycle?

McCURRY: He, he um, I will say this, every time I go talk to a college-aged audience and say who would you like to see moderate one of these debates, his name comes out.

HEFFNER: So you’re not precluding that possibility?

FAHRENKOPF: He’s got 200 thousand signatures I think we were presented with.

HEFFNER: On Change dot org.

FAHRENKOPF: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.

McCURRY: Yeah.

FAHRENKOPF: So I don’t know, we’re, we’re a long way from the moderators at this point and…

HEFFNER: It’s possible.

FAHRENKOPF: It’s always, it’s possible.


FAHRENKOPF: It’s always difficult because diversity is important.

McCURRY: He has, he has said, I mean he may have a different point of view now that he’s uh, in a new phase of his life but he has said in the past that look I, I run an entertainment program. And, we have tended to go with practicing journalists who are coming out of the world of political journalism, who are covering the campaign as people who moderate the debates.

FAHRENKOPF: No one is out of the, you’re, you’re, you could be a candidate in this election, you did a good job here today,


McCURRY: Yeah why, why, why wouldn’t you want,

FAHRENKOPF: So no one’s in and no one’s out as far as moderators.

HEFFNER: I don’t know if anyone better can expose to malarkey to use Joe, Vice President Biden’s favorite word.



HEFFNER: Thank you both, it’s been a pleasure.

McCURRY: Thank you.

FAHRENKOPF: Pleasure, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.