The Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan project of the Republican and Democratic parties, was established, at least in part, to make sure that major party presidential candidates would be unlikely to suffer the indignity of sharing a stage with an outsider. The effort hasn't been completely successful — Ross Perot actually managed to meet the CPD's nearly prohibitive criteria for inclusion in 1992 — but the two parties now have a lot more control over the ritualistic meetings between their chosen contenders than they did back in the wild and woolly days when they might be thrown curve balls by such unpredictable loose-cannon debate hosts of the past as the League of Women Voters. That stage-managed, private-club quality taken on the by the CPD's debates may not be working out in their favor this year, with three debate sponsors pulling out explicitly to avoid being seen as endorsing Republicans and Democrats at the expense of candidates from other political parties.
In response to my query, Mark A. Stephenson, Head of Corporate Communications for Philips North America, sent me this statement:
The Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonprofit, 501(c) (3) corporation dedicated to providing a platform to the U.S. public – in the form of presidential and vice-presidential debates – which serves to inform voters on a variety of issues. Philips, a company with roots in the U.S spanning more than eight decades, supports the goals and ideals of having a more engaged and informed electorate. Philips also has a long and proud heritage of being non-partisan in the many countries it serves around the world. While the Commission on Presidential Debates is a non-partisan organization, their work may appear to support bi-partisan politics. 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.
This is remarkably similar to a statement released by the YWCA, signed by the organization's CEO, Dara Richardson-Heron:
On behalf of the YWCA USA, I would like to thank you for your recent letter expressing concerns about the Commission on Presidential Debates and the YWCA's sponsorship of the 2012 debates next month.
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.
Again, we thank you for alerting us of your concerns and appreciate your support of the YWCA and our mission.
BBH New York, an arm of the international Bartle Bogle and Hegarty advertising agency has also dropped its support for the CPD's media events, although that company is struggling and may no longer be in a position to throw money at politicians. All three organizations have disappeared from the CPD's official list of sponsors. That list, by the way, is now down to seven, which is the shortest the organization has listed over the years of its existence for the debates it has organized.
Third-party supporters — Gary Johnson-backers, in particular — as well as advocates of open debates have leaned on the CPD especially hard this year. Part of their effort has been to put pressure on sponsors. That tactic is obviously working.
I wouldn't expect the CPD to cave anytime soon and admit candidates like Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party, just because they're on the ballot in enough states to, conceivably, win and running for the same office as the two anointed politicos who have been approved for participation. But I suspect that advocates of open political dialogue are getting much more exposure this year then the Republican and Democratic establishment would like, and that their creature, the CPD, is leaking credibility, not to mention financial viability, with the departure of check-writing sponsors.