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What Are The Rules For Presidential Debates?


The Presidential debates are over, but it was fun to read some of the rules. There was a 21-page memo that laid out how the debates were to be run, covering everything from the size of the parking lots to the temperature in the auditorium.

There is a Commission on Presidential Debates that took control from the League of Women Voters in 1987. They select the venues and moderators and set the guidelines.

Among them:

The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the four debates.” This rule was broken repeatedly in the second Obama-Romney debate. There is also a stipulation that “the candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges,” meaning they can’t force each other to make promises.

For two of the debates, the candidates were prohibited from moving from their assigned places. The second debate featured a “Town Hall’ approach with the candidates standing.

The candidates are not allowed to bring “props, notes, charts, diagrams, or other writings or other tangible things.” This rule also includes portable electronic devices.

For the standing debates, just in case one candidate tries to appear bigger than the other candidate, there are specific rules about podium size. The podiums must be identical and “measure 50 inches from the stage floor to the outside top of the podium facing the audience and shall measure 48 inches from the stage floor to the top of the inside podium writing surface facing the respective candidates.” The podiums have to be without markings on the front and “no candidate shall be permitted to use risers or any other device to create an impression of elevated height.” They must be 10 feet apart and at an equal distance from the moderator’s table.

A very detailed section about ticketing dictates that supporters of each candidate do not sit in a block and are interspersed with supporters for the other candidate. Also, all members of the debate audience will be instructed by the moderator before the debate goes on the air and by the moderator after the debate goes on the air not to applaud, speak, or otherwise participate in the debate by any means other than by silent observation.

The agreement contains a rule that states that each candidate is to have an adequately sized dressing room to “provide private seclusion for that candidate and adequate space for the staff the candidate desires to have in this area.” Of course, the two dressing rooms must be comparable in size, as well as in quality and proximity and access to the debate stage.

In true “never let them see you sweat” fashion, the CPD terms even include a rule about the temperature of the room. The rule simply states that “the Commission shall use best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature as agreed to by the campaigns.”

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