Since the CPD seized control of the presidential debates in 1988, they have primarily been financed by corporate contributions. Multinational corporations with regulatory interests before Congress have donated millions of dollars in contributions to the CPD. Tobacco giant Phillip Morris was a major sponsor in 1992 and 1996. Anheuser-Busch has sponsored presidential debates in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
The CPD has turned the presidential debates into yet another opportunity for special interests to influence the political process via financial contributions. By donating to the CPD, corporations are able to make tax-deductible contributions that simultaneously benefit both major parties. By contrast, donations to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters were primarily considered civic charity. Nancy Neuman, former president of the League of Women Voters, explained:
One of the big differences between us and the commission was that the commission could easily raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. They did it very quickly in 1988. Even though I would go to some corporations, I would be lucky to get $5,000. Why? Because under the commission’s sponsorship, this is another soft-money deal. It is a way to show your support for the parties because, of course, it is a bipartisan commission and a bipartisan contribution. There was nothing in it for corporations when they made a contribution to the League. Not a quid pro quo. That’s not the case with the commission.
Under the auspices of the CPD, debate sites have become corporate carnivals, where sponsoring corporations vigorously market their products. In 1992, after providing some $250,000 in contributions to the CPD, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris won the right to hang a large banner that was visible during post-debate interviews. For the third 2000 presidential debate, Anheuser-Busch, which had contributed $550,000 to the CPD, set up several information booths to distribute glossy pamphlets denouncing “unfair” beer taxes and calling on the government to “avoid interfering” with beer drinking. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank described the first 2000 presidential debate:
The whole campus is closed – (ostensibly) to thwart terrorists, more likely to thwart Nader and Buchanan. Nader gets kicked out of the debate audience, even though he got himself a ticket from a student. He’s threatening lawsuits. But I’m not worried about such things. I am inside the debate area, and I am delighted to find an Anheuser Busch refreshment tent, where there is beer flowing, snacks, Budweiser girls in red sweaters, the baseball playoffs on television, ping pong and fusbol.
That the CPD has been able to raise millions of dollars in corporate contributions is not surprising. Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, who co-chair and control the CPD, are registered lobbyists for multinational corporations. McCurry has lobbied extensively on behalf of the telecommunications industry. Fahrenkopf earns approximately $900,000 a year as the chief lobbyist for the nation’s $54-billion gambling industry. As president of the American Gaming Association, Fahrenkopf directs enormous financial contributions to major party candidates and saturates the media with expert testimony extolling gambling’s “many benefits.” “We’re not going to apologize for trying to influence political elections,” said Fahrenkopf.
McCurry and Fahrenkopf’s lobbying practices demonstrate a willingness to protect corporate interests at the expense of voters’ interests. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the co-chairs of the CPD are willing to protect major party interests at the expense of voters’ interests.
2012 Victory for Reformers
In response to an unprecedented email and letter-writing campaign facilitated by Open Debates and its supporters and allies, three of the ten corporations identified as sponsors of the CPD withdrew their sponsorship of the presidential debates in 2012. Advertising agency BBH New York, nonprofit organization YWCA, and tech giant Philips North America terminated their sponsorship as a result of accusations that the CPD is anti-democratic and subservient to the major parties. Never before has a sponsor of the CPD withdrawn its support.
On September 26, Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA, wrote in an email to activists, “As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, we have decided to withdraw our sponsorship effective immediately.”
On September 28, Mark Stephenson, director of corporate communications for Philips North America, explained, “We respect all points of view and, as a result, want to ensure that Philips doesn’t provide even the slightest appearance of supporting partisan politics. As such, no company funds have been or will be used to support the Commission on Presidential Debates.”
The withdrawal of three sponsors is a triumph for the debate reform movement. Increasingly, voters are discovering that the CPD is often more concerned with the partisan interests of the major parties than with the democratic interests of the America people, and they are directing their frustration at the institutions that financially and logistically support it.