Just how much do corporate sponsors give to the Commission on Presidential Debates?

Update, October 15, 2008 – The New York Times as published an article on corporate sponsorship of this year’s debates.  The article can be found here.  You will need a NYT login to read the article. (h/t to Ballot Access News)

Also George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, was on C-Span’s Washington Journal program this morning.


I have spent a few hours searching and cannot find an accounting of the corporate donations to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a 501 (c) (3) organization established by the Democratic and Republican Parties in 1988. Presidential debates had previously occurred in 1960 and then again in 1976, 1980 and 1984 under the aegis of the League of Women Voters. The GHW Bush and Dukakis campaigns requested changes in the format of the debates which the LWV rejected:

the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

The debates staged by the CPD are funded by private corporate sponsors, who evidently do not share the scruples of the LWV.  The debate agreements between the DP and RP campaigns are private, all other candidates are effictively excluded, the participation and questions are restricted to vetted party supporters, and questions are prescreened.  The CPD is simply a tool of the two parties.

The CPD is apparently not required to file itemized declarations of its finances.  It does list donors here on its website, but it is not clear if the list is complete and the donation totals are omitted.  The donors listed for 2008 are Anheuser-Busch Companies, BBH New York, The Howard G. Buffet Foundation, Sheldon S. Cohen, Esq., EDS, an HP Company, International Bottled Water Organization, The Kovler Fund, Kaiser Family Foundation, YWCA USA.

The involvement of corporate sponsors in this key and ostensibly public event is a depressing indication of the privatization of politics.  Certainly the two main political parties essential own the debates and behave accordingly.  Thresholds for including other candidates are reconifigured to exlude anyone other than the DP or RP nominees. Ross Perot got into the 1992 debates only because GHW Bush insisted, although the race in the summer was a three-way tie.  In 1996, Perot was excluded from the debate even though he got 18% of the vote in the previous election!

In the aftermath, the CPD set a threshhold of 15% in 5 national polls of the CPD’s chosing for inclusion.  As the nominees of the Green, Libertarian and Nader campaigns have noted, the 1996 Perot campaign would have passed that test only after his participation in 1992.  It is impossible to be seen as a viable candidate unless you appear on the same stage and are treated in the same regard as the DP or RP nominees.

What I did find that is of interest follows.  It may be that there is some breakdown of the funding from years past that I haven’t found or some upcoming news item will reveal all…

  • http://www.opendebates.org/ Works to make the debate agreements between the RP and DP candidates public, to open the debates, and to ultimately with a public nonpartisan entity.

“The CPD has solicited and raised millions of dollars from for-profit corporations to help it stage its presidential debates. The corporate sponsors of its 1992 debates included: AT&T, Atlantic Richfield, Ford Motor Company, IBM, J.P. Morgan & Co. and Philip Morris Companies, Inc. The corporate sponsors of its 1996 debates included: Anheuser-Busch, Lucent Technologies, Philip Morris Companies, Inc., Sara Lee Corporation and Sprint Corporation.
The CPD has announced that Anheuser-Busch will serve as one of the national financial sponsors for its 2000 presidential debates, as well as the sole national financial sponsor of CPD’s scheduled October 17, 2000 presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri. Anheuser-Busch will pay $550,000 to underwrite the upcoming St. Louis debate.”

  • A softball interview with the current ED of the CPD.  Apparently the barriers to political participation are nothing compared to the excitement of corroeographing well-executed political theater, she says, not in so many words, of course:

“Janet H. Brown is the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a tax-exempt organization that was established in 1987 to sponsor and produce presidential and vice presidential debates during each general-election period. Brown, who previously was a Reagan administration official and press secretary to Republican Senator John C. Danforth, has led the organization since its inception. John W. Mashek interviewed Brown on April 17, 2007. “

  • A copy of the 2004 debate contract negotiated by the Bush and Kerry campaigns is available here:


  • Here’s a description of the mechanics behind the 2004 debates as described on a George Washington University website:


  • A fairly general treatment of campaign finance and the CPD from Oct 26 2000…:

Heads or Tails You Lose: The Commission on Presidential Debates Knows a Thing or Two About Odds.

  • The abstract of the case brought by John Haeglin and the Natural Law Party where minor parties contested the impartiality of the Commission on Presidential Debates, charging that the FEC had to investigate whether the CPD was in fact a political group.  The case in the end failed on the Apellate level.

John HAGELIN, et al., Appellees v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Appellant, 411 F.3d 237 (D.C. Cir. 2005)


Posted on September 16, 2008, in Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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