What Happened in 1996?In 1996, six candidates were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority: President Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party, Senator Bob Dole of the Republican Party, Ross Perot of the Reform Party, Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party, John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party and Howard Phillips of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.
Many pundits and newspapers supported Perot's inclusion. He was on the ballot in all 50 states, received $29 million in federal funds for his 1996 campaign, had "won" two of the three presidential debates four years earlier, had captured 19 percent of the popular vote four years earlier and was polling at virtually the same level as he had in 1992 pre-debate polls. Most importantly, 76 percent of eligible voters wanted Perot included in the 1996 presidential debates.
But, the real decision-makers -- Dole and Clinton -- wanted Perot out of the debates. Dole desperately wanted Perot out of the debates because he expected that Perot would take more votes away from him than from Clinton. Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager, said, "We didn't want Perot in the debates. Nothing else really mattered. ... We made sure Perot wasn't going to be in the debates." Clinton, meanwhile, opposed Perot'd inclusion in the debates because Clinton was winning by more than 20 points in the polls and he didn't want a wealthy wildcard changing the dynamic of the race.
On September 17, 1996, the CPD's Advisory Committee unanimously recommended inviting only Dole and Clinton to the presidential debates, and the CPD unanimously approved the Advisory Committee's recommendation. The CPD's ruling, however, did not terminate discussion about Perot. In fact, negotiations over Perot's participation had only just begun.
On September 21, four days after the CPD announced that Perot did not have a "realistic chance of victory," major party negotiators met to draft a Memorandum of Understanding. During these debate negotiations, Perot's potential inclusion was used as a bargaining chip. Despite the CPD's ruling, Clinton proposed that Perot be included in the first debate. Clinton had every intention of participating in two-man debates, but he wanted to leverage Perot's exclusion to exact concessions from Dole.
Dole was fearful of Clinton's proposal. He knew that Clinton could force Perot into the debates -- several organizations were more than willing to host inclusive presidential debates. To avoid that scenario, Dole awarded Clinton the right to dictate the terms of the debates (schedule, format, etc.) so long as Clinton agreed to exclude Perot. George Stephanopolous, senior advisor to President Clinton, explained, "[The Dole campaign] didn't have leverage going into negotiations. They were behind. They needed to make sure Perot wasn't in. As long as we would agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else we wanted going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our moderator."
Unfortunately, to protect his lead, Clinton desired the smallest possible audience for the debates. As a result, he cancelled one debate, and scheduled the remaining two debates opposite the baseball playoffs. The CPD accepted the antidemocratic dictates of the Dole and Clinton campaigns. Perot was excluded from all the debates; a debate was cancelled; and the schedule was distorted.
The Clinton strategy was a rousing success. The 1996 debates attracted the smallest audience in presidential debate history.