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Understanding the Presidential Debate Game

If you've watched a few presidential debates over the years, you've probably been a bit puzzled by some of what takes place. Why do the candidates stand stiffly at podiums, instead of relaxing in chairs? Since it's supposed to be an argument, why don't they actually just talk to each other? Who writes the questions, and are they a surprise to the candidates, or do they get to see them in advance? Why are the Democratic and Republican candidates invited, but not the third-party candidates who may be on the ballot in your state?


Alas, not all of those questions are easy to answer. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit organization that orchestrates the candidate showdowns, provides only a bare-boned  description of the formats for the debates, but not detailed rules. Wednesday's debate will be divided into six time segments of approximately 15 minutes apiece, on topics of moderator Jim Lehrer's choosing. He'll open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator can then use the balance of the time in the segment for more discussion.

This year, the commission has invited only candidates who have the support of at least 15 percent of the electorate in national polls - a standard that excludes third-party candidates such as Libertarian Party standard-bearer Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein.

The commission has drawn fire from watchdog groups for its practice of negotiating privately with candidates' campaigns over the details of the debates. (In 1988, the League of Women Voters actually withdrew its sponsorship of the second debate between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis after the campaigns tried to dictate the format and micro-manage the arrangements, such as the camera angles and where supporters and the news media would be seated; since then the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was created by the Democratic and Republican parties, has sponsored the debates.) These critics, who've called for the commission to disclose the contracts signed by the two campaigns, argue that many of the rules and stipulations surrounding the debates should be made public.

copy of the 2004 agreement between the commission and officials of the campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry, which was leaked and published on the Web, may give some insights into how the debate is shaped by the rules. Under the 2004 agreement, neither candidate was allowed to ask the other direct questions, though they could pose rhetorical ones in their own answers. Neither was allowed to bring any "cheat sheets" or visual aids to the debates. (During the first debate between Bush and Kerry, an odd bulge was noticeable on the back of Bush's suit jacket, which led conspiracy-minded liberals to speculate that he was outfitted with a radio transmitter to feed him advice and reminders during the debate.) The candidates were provided with notepads and their choices of either pens or pencils with which to take notes. The order in which the candidates answered questions and gave their closing statements was determined by a coin toss 72 hours beforehand.

Additionally, the 2004 agreement obligated the moderator to make sure that both candidates got equal opportunity to speak, and allowed him or her to interrupt the candidates if they went on for too long.

The 2004 agreement also gave exacting specifications for the podiums: They had to be precisely 50 inches high in the front and 48 inches in the rear, and both candidates were barred from using "risers or any other device to create an impression of elevated height." It also specified that the candidates be given cues via a series of colored lights to indicate how many seconds they had left to finish their remarks.

From the Nieman Journalism Lab, here's a fascinating interview with former NBC executive Bill Wheatley, who produced numerous presidential debates during his career, in which he reveals some of the inner workings of the debate game. -Patrick J. Kiger

Photos: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

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