Presidential debate coverage: League of Women Voters, Louisville have strong ties to debates

On Sept. 22, the members of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) gathered. The group included Dot Ridings, a women’s activist and journalist from Louisville. The commissioners’ task was to make the final decision on which candidates would receive invitations to the first Presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3. And, as usual, the decision was easy.

To be invited to a debate, a candidate has to meet three criteria: to be within the age and residency requirements specified in the Constitution, be on the ballot in enough states to make winning the Electoral College a possibility, and have at least 15% support in an aggregate of polls. This time, as every time, many candidates met the first two requirements — a couple dozen, by Ms. Ridings’ reckoning — but only two had 15% in the polls. “We pulled together 10 polls, all the polls you’ve ever heard of,” Ridings said, “and only Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met the criteria.”

So on Wednesday, Obama and Romney will be the only two candidates sharing a stage, as per a rule that has been in place since at least the 1984 debates, before the CPD even existed. Before the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1988, the debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, historically an independent and nonpartisan group that included Ridings as its first vice president and a president.

The league started sponsoring the debates almost by default in 1976, after the Federal Election Commission ruled that television networks could not. At first, it did not want to call the meetings between presidential candidates “debates” at all. “We tried to call them forums, but the media called them debates.” Ridings said. “We never said that’s what they were, but that’s what the public termed them.”

The league’s relatively short tenure — it sponsored the 1976, 1980, 1984, and part of the 1988 debates — got off to a rocky start. During the Philadelphia debate in 1976, the soundstage went dead for almost half an hour, though Jimmy Carter, according to CNN, later credited the debates with his victory that year.

1980 was a year that everyone watched. Incumbent Jimmy Carter was up against Republican Ronald Reagan and Independent John Anderson. Four debates were scheduled, one — the Vice Presidential debate — in Louisville, but the operation soon ran into significant problems and criticism. The league had not invited an independent candidate in ‘76 — Eugene McCarthy did not meet the threshold in the polls — but Anderson, at one point, was rivalling Carter. While Reagan wanted to debate both Carter and Anderson, the President refused to share a stage with the independent.

Louisville newspapers at the time chronicle the story: In June of 1980, Louisville celebrated when it found it it would host the Vice-Presidential debate. Tickets were distributed to the public. Ridings and the league’s president at the time, Ruth J. Henderfeld, sang the city’s virtues. The local Chamber of Commerce planned a horse race down Main Street.

But then, the content of the articles shifted. Carter did not want to debate, and editorials appeared in the Courier-Journal, the Louisville Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers criticizing the league’s handling of the debates. Finally, the headline came: Anderson and Carter would debate in Baltimore, and Reagan and Carter would debate in Cleveland, but the vice presidential candidates would not debate in Louisville. The league braced itself for backlash. Criticism — for inviting Anderson to the first debate, for not inviting him to the second — came from all sides, though the consensus was that the Louisville league had conducted itself well.

1984 was a different year, a different election, a different atmosphere. Ridings became president of the league, and Louisville was again chosen to host a debate. League records showed many local corporations donating to the event. Marsha Weinstein, a Louisville women’s advocate and a future president of the league’s Louisville chapter, attended the debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Weinstein was a Mondale supporter — he supported the Equal Rights Amendment — and she was not disappointed. By many accounts, Reagan’s challenger presented himself well, which helped him briefly in the polls. “I was honored to have been there,” Weinstein said. “It was an exciting time for Louisville.”

Then, in 1988, the problems returned. Candidates began to negotiate a debate contract on their own, which eventually led the league to pull its sponsorship of the debate. “The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetuate a fraud,” President Nancy Neuman said in a press release. In the league’s wake, the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed.

But the league’s impact on the conduct of presidential debates lasts. As a current or former member of both the League of Women Voters and the Commission on Presidential debate, Ms. Ridings sees the parallels between the past and present. The league created most of the rules, including the eligibility requirements, and its format of question, short answer, and rebuttal has been a staple of the debates for decades — in fact, Wednesday’s debate on Wednesday will be the first to deviate greatly from that format, with fifteen-minute topic segments and more time for discussion.

In addition, the candidates did not want a single moderator for a debate. Despite that, single moderators are now a staple of the debates. “We’ve pushed hard on a lot of things,” Ridings said, “that have since come to fruition.” will continue to cover the upcoming presidential debates. Stay tuned on Wednesday for live updates from Denver, Colorado.