From the moment the League served up the 1976 presidential debates, we've been subjected to a lot of heat. But we can't imagine any temperature that would make us want to get out of the kitchen. The public's need for these 1980 debates is too great, especially in an era in which 30-second media spots and prepared speeches are almost the only fare the voter is fed.
There's been heat from the candidates. They understandably look to their own interests; consequently, their responses to a debates package depend on where they see advantage. One candidate may hope to benefit from the wide audience exposure and thereby narrow an opponent's lead. Another may be counting on an opponent's making a fateful slip of the tongue in the heat of unrehearsed response. Still another candidate may worry lest a photogenic profile count for more than well-reasoned argument on any of the issues.
These conflicting interests have kept in doubt the very question of whether there will be debates at all. There are no rules, after all, that require candidates, to debate. Though almost all of them say they would like to debate, they are also anxious to control the terms on which they do so. If they don't get the conditions they want, they may walk away.
We've had a good many alternative recipes urged upon us, by political pundits of many stripes as well as by candidates. There have been calls for more debates, for fewer debates, for debates only between the major-party candidates and for debates earlier than those the League has planned. We've been admonished to use "our own judgment" instead of looking to polls as indicators of voter support. We've also been advised to use the polls but with a threshold other than the 15 percent we chose. The decisions we have made are themselves an exercise in judgment.
We are guided in these judgments by our experience and by what we perceive to be the interests of the American voter. The League has a long history to sustain -- a history of presenting nonpartisan, scrupulously fair candidate nights throughout the country. Communities have come to count on the preelection services to voters, and can count on the League to bring that same standard of fairness and objectivity to the great series of candidate nights known as the presidential debates.
It is our commitment to nonpartisanship an fairness that has led us to make the decisions we have made so far regarding the participation of third-party and independent candidates. The Report of The 20th Century Fund Task Force on Televised Presidential Debates characterized this as "the single most difficult issue confronting presidential debates." The task force pointed out that the "problem is to recognize the claim of significant contenders while not giving added encouragement to the splinter or marginal or single-issue candidates who proliferate in presidential election years."
Our judgement was that we must provide the American public with information about the candidates who participation will most likely be critical to the electorate as a whole and that we must establish criteria by which to determine which candidates have significant voter interest and support.
We know that the tools at hand are imperfect. We expect not merely to read the numerical results but to exercise judgement in evaluating the differing techniques each pollster used. At bottom, we will be relying on faithfulness to our own tradition -- a tradition that has led many Americans to entrust this awesome responsibility to us.