Co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates Frank Fahrenkopf gives a preview to the Trump-Biden showdown.
Later this September, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off in what many believe will be the most watched presidential debate in American history. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and a national reckoning on race relations, the stage is set for a series of critical debates that could very well determine the occupant of the White House for the next four years. The responsibility for orchestrating this debate as well as the three others to follow weighs on the shoulders of Nantucket summer resident Frank Fahrenkopf, who co-founded the Commission on Presidential Debates more than thirty years ago. As co-chair of this nonprofit organization, Fahrenkopf is part of the team who decides the date, location, format and moderators of each debate. Over his tenure, Fahrenkopf has witnessed firsthand how the tides of an election can change in the wake of a debate performance. N Magazine spoke to Fahrenkopf to get his insights on this consequential debate and election cycle.
FAHRENKOPF: There’s no law that says a president has to debate. Maybe we made a mistake by calling it the Commission on Presidential Debates. It sounds like some official commission, but, no, we’re a nonprofit. We get no money from the parties, no money from the candidates, no money from the government. We raise all our money privately. After we had the 1960 debates between Kennedy and Nixon, we went sixteen years before there was another presidential debate.
N MAGAZINE: Why was that?
FAHRENKOPF: Lyndon Johnson felt that if you’re president of the United States and you put your opponent on the stage with you, you’re lifting that person’s stature. So he said I’m not going to debate. Nixon was so shocked by what happened with his poor debate in ’60 that he refused to debate two times. It wasn’t really until he resigned and Gerald Ford became president that Carter challenged him to a debate. So that was the first time in sixteen years that there’d been a debate, which was done by the League of Women Voters. And they did it again in 1980. So there’s nothing that compels a candidate or president to debate. There’s no law, but I think if you try to walk away from the debates, you’re really hurting yourself.
N MAGAZINE: What is the best debate you have witnessed?
FAHRENKOPF: In my view, the best debate was actually a vice presidential debate: Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney. They sat at a table and really discussed issues. It was a marvelous performance, but no one remembers it because it was a vice presidential debate.
N MAGAZINE: What have been the best lines in debates that you can recall?
FAHRENKOPF: During one debate in 1980, then-Governor Reagan looked at Jimmy Carter and said, “There you go again.” As if to say, you’re making up things that weren’t true. An- other was when Reagan was asked whether he was too old to be president. He actually looked down at me and winked and then said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The place just broke up. Even [Vice President Walter] Mondale laughed.
N MAGAZINE: Let’s fast forward to today. Up to this point, Biden has artfully stayed away from the media. What is motivating that?
FAHRENKOPF: I don’t know. I know Joe very, very well. I’ve known Joe for years and years and years. The pandemic was the start of it all. It’s just changed the way we live and the way we do things. I think that when the people around him saw what the president was doing and saying, and saw his numbers dropping, they thought why go out if you don’t have to? Now the pressure is starting to build.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think Biden’s performance in the debates could dictate the outcome of this election?
FAHRENKOPF: I think this first debate between Trump and Biden is going to be crucial in this campaign. There will be a lot of weight on Joe. In 2016, the first debate was probably one of the most watched ever. Nielsen said it was between 86 mil- lion and 90 million. And that doesn’t count C-SPAN or the people who watched on their computers. The best estimate we have is that there was probably 110-120 million people who saw that debate. I believe this first debate will exceed 120 million people watching it.
N MAGAZINE: During the 2016 presidential debate cycle, Donald Trump resorted to some unprecedented maneuvers, such as threatening to bring former President Clinton’s accusers as guests to one of the debates. How do you safeguard against such tactics?
FAHRENKOPF: In that case, I was fortunate that one of my people had heard the rumor and had tipped me off. So I was able to stop it. To be honest with you, having done thirty debates, starting in 1988 with the general election debates, that’s the first time anyone’s tried to do something like that. We had never had that sort of problem before. It was fortunate that I was tipped off and I was able to prevent that because that sort of prank, if you want to call it that, would destroy the integrity of what we’re doing here. Now, I don’t anticipate anything like that again, but how could you know? You just don’t know.
N MAGAZINE: What other lessons from the 2016 debates will apply to this cycle?
FAHRENKOPF: What I learned in 2016, which was an odd year, was that the American people are not necessarily going to vote for who they think is the smartest person. There’s what I call the “likeability quotient.” The American people want to like the person whom they’re going to vote for. Now, 2016 was different because for the first time—at least as long as I’ve been involved in the debate business—both candidates were overwhelmingly disliked by the American people. So it will be very interesting to see whether or not that whole rule applies to these debates and whom people are going to vote for.
N MAGAZINE: Given new safety requirements amid the coronavirus, how will this year’s debates be different than the ones you’ve chaired in the past? Will there be an audience?
FAHRENKOPF: Fundamentally, what we’ve done over the years is to have an audience, the average size of which has been around nine hundred people. It’s been as large as 1,200 and has been as small as six hundred, depending upon the facility that we’re hoping to hold the debate at. We have consulted with the Cleveland Clinic to give us their advice as to how many people we can have as an audience safely. The Cleveland Clinic will look at each of the sites and indicate to us what kind of distancing is going to have to be involved and how many people would be safe to have in the audience. I would be surprised if we were in the triple digits.
N MAGAZINE: How about formats with audience participation?
FAHRENKOPF: Historically, with the town hall meeting, we’ve had somewhere between fifty and a hundred people on stage sitting in bleachers where they’re the ones to ask the candidates questions. Of course, we’re not going to be able to do that. I’m sure the Cleveland Clinic is going to look at the facility down in Miami and determine how many people can safely be on stage and what social distancing is required. Normally, somewhere between three and five thousand reporters cover the debate—I’m sure we’re not going to have that many.
N MAGAZINE: How are the moderators selected?
FAHRENKOPF: We will not announce the moderators until probably near the end of the first week in September. We are monitoring the people we are considering very closely to make sure that we get the fairest and most balanced people. This is not like them interviewing a candidate, where if [they] sat down as a reporter. Their job is to facilitate debate—facilitate these candidates debating each other. So if candidate A says something that differs with what they said a week before, it’s not the moderator’s job to pop in and say, “Wait a minute, you said something different a week before.” The moderator should let the other candidate say that. This is a debate; it’s not an interview.
N MAGAZINE: After citing that Hillary Clinton had been given debate questions in advance of the 2016 primaries, President Trump claimed that Biden was recently given questions in advance for a press conference. How does the Commission prevent that from happening?
FAHRENKOPF: The Commission doesn’t know the questions that are going to be asked. That’s journalistic integrity. What the president was saying last time was that during the primaries Donna Brazile, who was then the chair of the Democratic National Committee, gave Hillary the questions that were going to be asked in the primary debate. But we’ve never had a problem like that where there’s been any case where the people we’ve chosen as moderators have done something like that. I don’t anticipate that that is really something that we have to worry about.
N MAGAZINE: Looking at the election itself, the voting rate in America is one of the lowest in the developed world. Why are Americans so lax on utilizing a gift that democracy provides?
FAHRENKOPF: I’ve got a pet peeve. And my pet peeve is that if you really look at who isn’t voting, it’s usually young people. It’s kids just coming out of school. I believe it’s a direct connection to the fact that they no longer teach civics in K-12. They don’t teach the history of the United States. That’s a lot of what’s going on right now. Some of these people who are demonstrating— and I have no problem with peaceful demonstrating—but they don’t know the history. I mean they’re tearing down statues of people who were in favor of defending Black people. So it’s crazy stuff that they don’t understand civics. They don’t understand that you have an obligation as a citizen. One of your obligations to live in this great democracy is to exercise your right to vote. It’s the most precious thing you can have. But it’s been a problem for a long, long time, and I think it takes leadership.
N MAGAZINE: What do you think the turnout will be in this election?
FAHRENKOPF: I think there will be a heck of a turnout. Trump has loyal followers and they’ll turn out. They did in the past, and I think they will again. But there’s so much dislike for this president. You’ve seen some of the polls ask, “Are you going to the polls to vote against Trump or for Biden?” And more people say they’re going to vote against Trump—they really dislike him. So I think you’ll have a very large turnout. The last study that came out of the Harvard Kennedy School two or three months ago showed more interest this time. And I also think that the whole Black Lives Matter movement has also energized a lot of people who probably have never voted before. I think it will be a tremendous turnout. Tremendous.
This interview has been edited and condensed due to space limitations in print.