39 Months Out, GOP Makes Demands on Presidential Debate Rules and Format

The 2024 candidates for president will not square off on a debate stage for at least another 39 months, but the Republican Party already is demanding big changes from the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates before agreeing its candidate will take part.

"For too long, the CPD has failed to meet its responsibility to presidential candidates and American voters nationwide in providing a neutral forum for candidate debates," Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel wrote in a letter to the commission Wednesday. "Our sincere hope is that the CPD accepts this criticism and works to correct its mistakes."

McDaniel's letter, which seeks a response from the commission by the end of July, revives one of former President Donald Trump's simmering grievances tied to his loss in last fall's election.

Trump, who has continued to claim without evidence that he was the actual winner of the election, maintained during the fall that he was mistreated in the debates and his rival Joe Biden was getting an unfair advantage.

Among McDaniel's complaints listed in this week's letter: The final debate fell after early and absentee voting had begun in some states; the commission abruptly proposed shifting to a virtual debate (because of Trump's positive COVID-19 diagnosis); moderator issues; the CPD's board of directors; and even stage set up.

McDaniel credited Trump's "background in television" for recognizing that plexiglass installed between the podiums because of the coronavirus pandemic could create a lighting issue.

"Had it not be caught by the President of the United States, the CPD's unforced error would have caused a surprising and awkward distraction for both candidates once the cameras started to roll," she wrote.

The Democratic National Committee and the nonpartisan CPD didn't respond to Newsweek's requests for comment.

The independent commission typically negotiates terms of debates with candidates' campaigns after primaries and conventions have concluded during the election year.

The next race could be a rematch between Biden, who has announced he will seek reelection, and Trump, who is openly mulling the idea and is currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

Trump frequently complained last fall over perceived slights in the debates. After Trump and members of his inner circle tested positive for COVID-19 following the first debate in Ohio, debate organizers opted for the second debate to be held virtually. Trump refused to debate remotely, so he and Biden ultimately held live town hall events on different networks.

In her letter, McDaniel calls for term limits and a code of conduct for members of the CPD board; timelines that account for early and absentee voting; moderator guidelines and penalties for violations.

"If not, the RNC will have no choice but to advise future Republican candidates against participating in CPD-hosted debates and the RNC will look for other options for its candidates to debate the issues before the American people in a neutral and nonpartisan forum," she wrote.

The first Trump-Biden debate was notably chaotic: Trump's family refused to follow mask requirements; Trump frequently interrupted Biden; and moderator Chris Matthews struggled to maintain control.

For the second debate, Trump's team had tried to negotiate terms that would put him on the stage with Biden again, despite the president's COVID-19 diagnosis that had forced him to be hospitalized less than two weeks earlier. It was supposed to be a town hall format.

Trump's campaign was unsuccessful at getting the town hall debate rescheduled, leaving just the third moderated head-to-head debate between the two candidates but with a manually operated mute button to prevent interruptions that plagued the earlier debate.

Polls and pundits generally declared Biden the winner of the two debates, despite Trump's insistence he had outperformed Biden. He frequently railed on Twitter against the commission and debate formats during that time.

RNC challenges Presidential Debate Commission rules
The stage for the final presidential debate of the U.S. 2020 presidential elections is being tested for light and sound at Belmont University on October 21, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Polls and pundits generally declared Joe Biden the winner of the two debates, despite Donald Trump's insistence to the contrary. Eric BARADAT / AFP/Getty Images