Biden, Trump debate would be first without Commission on Presidential Debates since 1987

Republican presidential candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle on Oct. 22, 2020. File Pool Photo by Chip Somodevilla/UPI
1 of 2 | Republican presidential candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle on Oct. 22, 2020. File Pool Photo by Chip Somodevilla/UPI | License Photo

May 24 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have loosely agreed to debate twice this summer, doing so without the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The campaigns agreed to debate first in Atlanta on June 27. The second will take place at Virginia State University, a historically Black college in Petersburg, Va., on Sept.10.


Tammy Vigil, associate dean of the Boston University College of Communication, told UPI that while the candidates have agreed on the dates and locations, these debates are not quite a sure thing.

"I don't know that there have been any virtual or symbolic handshakes over the deal," said Vigil, who co-authored The Third Agenda in U.S. Presidential Debates: Debate Watch and Citizen Reactions. "They're more locked down on the locations than the dates. Virginia State University had been arranged by the commission. They're sort of using the commission's work without having to go through the commission."


The move to circumvent the Commission on Presidential Debates is uncommon. Republican and Democratic candidates have not gone outside of the commission to set their own debate schedule since it was formed in 1987.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization was formed for this sole purpose after the League of Women Voters organized debates from 1976 to 1984. Before that, it was news organizations that put presidential debates together, starting with the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

The commission is co-chaired by former Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and philanthropist Antonia Hernandez, a Democrat. Its board consists of eight members, both Republicans and Democrats.

Both campaigns shared their reasons for bucking tradition. Notably, they agreed that the schedule put forth by the commission would not serve voters as early voting will have begun in some states before the last debate takes place.

Early voting begins 40 days before election day in Illinois, 30 days before in Maine, 29 days before in California and 27 days before in Arizona.

The dates proposed by the commission were: Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, Oct. 1 at Virginia State University and Oct. 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential debate would be held at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., on Sept. 25.


The campaigns have not clarified their intentions for the vice presidential debate.

In a statement emailed to UPI, the Commission on Presidential Elections said it will remain prepared to carry out the debates as scheduled.

"The American public deserves substantive debates from the leading candidates for president and vice president," the statement said. "The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 specifically to ensure that such debates reliably take place and reach the widest television, radio and streaming audience. Our 2024 sites, all locations of higher learning, are prepared to host debates on dates chosen to accommodate early voters."

Two advisors for Biden, Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, were part of a working group that published a report calling for debate reform in 2015. Holding the debates earlier was one of the key proposals. It also called for eliminating on-site audiences aside from a small town hall, requiring moderators to sign agreements about the rules and format and enlarging the pool of potential moderators.

There had been tension building between the Republican Party and the commission in recent years. The Republican National Committee severed its relationship with the committee in 2022.

Trump notably objected to some of the guardrails the commission put in place during the 2020 cycle, particularly muting candidates who refuse to yield to their opponent. This was put in place after Trump continued to talk over Biden in their first debate.


"In 2020, the first presidential debate was not pretty. It was really horrendous," Vigil said. "The commission came in and said we need to do something. That was when they added the ability to mute the mics. That caused a stir."

Trump also refused to participate in one of the debates in 2020, due to it being held virtually. He has also been critical of the commission over its choices of moderators.

"Donald Trump has a long history of playing games with debates: complaining about the rules, breaking those rules, pulling out at the last minute, or not showing up at all -- which he's done repeatedly in all three cycles he's run for president, Jen O'Malley Dillon, manager of the Biden-Harris campaign, said in a statement. "He said he would debate President Biden anytime, anywhere, anyplace. In fact, he's said and posted it dozens of times with varying degrees of comprehension and basic grammar. President Biden made his terms clear for two one-on-one debates, and Donald Trump accepted those terms. No more games. No more chaos, no more debate about debates."

The Trump campaign did not respond to UPI's request for comment.

Vigil has some concerns about how these debates could shift the focus from being informative to generating television ratings. She recalls the 2020 debates that generated substantial criticism for leaning toward entertainment over substance.


"The commission had some pretty good rules about what the moderators could do in terms of getting questions and all of that was tightly controlled," Vigil said. "I don't know if that's going to be so controlled now."

Vigil is also wondering whether a third-party or independent candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may find an easier path to the debate stage without the commission. Ross Perot was the last candidate, not affiliated with the two major parties, to appear in a presidential debate in 1992.

There is little research to show that presidential debates have a strong impact on voters, at least in terms of swaying them from one side to the other. At most, they may solidify a vote or motivate voters to cast their ballots.

Whether this year's presidential debates look different or not, and if they move forward as the campaigns have said, remains to be seen.

"I wouldn't say it's the end of debates as we know them," Vigil said. "I do think it's significant for the Commission on Presidential Debates. It shows a lack of flexibility by the commission."

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