RNC votes to withdraw from Commission on Presidential Debates

Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (L-R) stand on stage for the Republican National Committee Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Opera House on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The candidates are meeting for the last Republican debate before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Republican National Committee announced over a week ago that it had unanimously voted to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the primary organizer of general-election presidential debates. The RNC argues the CPD is “biased” and unwilling to “serve the interest of the American people.”

The CPD was first established in 1987 jointly by the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties in order to ensure that “…general election debates between or among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States are a permanent part of the electoral process.” The organization describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation, and started sponsoring the presidential debates in 1988.

Northeastern assistant professor of political science Nicholas Beauchamp poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The feud between the two groups has been simmering for over a decade, The Washington Post reports. During the debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, Republicans complained that the CPD favored the Democrats. The RNC claimed that during the debate when Romney and Obama were facing off about Obama’s approach toward the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, CNN’s Candy Crowley interjected herself and “falsely accused our nominee of lying,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel says.

Four years later, then-future President Donald Trump blasted the commission following his debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming the bipartisan group was “rigged” and declared himself “done,” Intelligencer reports. Trump was referring to the CPD co-chair Mike McCurry, who served in Bill Clinton’s administration as the nation’s 20th White House press secretary.

But the disagreement between the groups didn’t reach a boiling point until 2020 when President Trump faced off against Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Trump repeatedly accused the commission of unfair treatment and refused to participate in the second sanctioned debate after he disagreed to hold it virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This only followed months after the RNC tried to stop the fundraising for the commission, which has had past debates sponsored by large corporations, associations, and foundations, the CPD reports.

“When you say this organization [CPD], which is not elected, has no constitutional role, is not doing what we want, it’s always your right to walk away from this, and reconstitute a new organization,” says Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern.

The RNC went on to argue that it was “biased” when the commission during the 2020 presidential debate picked Steve Scully–who worked as a college intern in Biden’s Senate office and later as a staff assistant in Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s media office–to be the moderator for the second general election debate before it was canceled.

“I’m sympathetic to a number of their [RNC] complaints,” Beauchamp says. “They reasoned, ‘We’re not getting anywhere with this process. We’ve made this escalating series of threats. None of them have been successful. The only play left is to walk away from the table.”

So, what does the future hold for presidential debates?

For the foreseeable future, the RNC announced Republicans will move toward “exploring other avenues for candidates to have a free and fair forum for all Americans,” with the RNC saying that “we are not walking away from debates.”

The RNC went on to say that the CPD failed to maintain “the organization’s strict nonpartisanship, with a majority of its board members publicly disparaging the Republican-nominee.” 

“In some ways, this is a bigger issue than just presidents,” Beauchamp says. “What happens when two parties are so far apart that standard norms like standing in front of a podium and answering questions from an established media figure are themselves subjects of fierce partisan debate?” 

Following the resolution that passed on April 14, the RNC requires that all Republican presidential candidates vow in writing to only appear at a party-sanctioned debate, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s very clear what their [RNC] goal is, which is to have a different body with a different set of rules that speaks to the various complaints they’ve been making since 2020 or at least since 2016,” Beauchamp says.