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Documents Show How Secret Corporate Money Funds Presidential Debates

Documents obtained by Shadowproof via historical archives and records requests show secret corporate money has fueled presidential debates since they became a quadrennial affair decades ago.

The role of corporate funding for debates is a little-known reality of presidential elections. Most people are aware of the way that corporations use direct donations to political parties, candidates, and their associated political action committees to curry favor and buy access. Few know debates themselves—ostensibly civic events meant to serve an educational purpose for voters—provide another one of those avenues.

In 1978, academics Marilyn Jackson-Beeck and Robert Meadow came up with the framework by which future scholars would evaluate presidential debates. Debates were the products of “three agendas,” Jackson-Beeck and Meadow wrote: the candidates, who want to use the debates to win elections; the voters, who want to see the issues they care about get raised and decide who to vote for; and the media, who are both hoping to challenge the candidates and, hopefully, get a ratings boost from the event.

Yet Jackson-Beeck and Meadow didn’t mention a fourth possible agenda, which has always creeped on the outer edges of the debates: that of the corporations which have poured money into the debate proceedings from their earliest beginnings. In fact, many corporate interests have given money to the third presidential debate hosted by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV).

They include the likes of tech giant Cisco, the Molasky Group real estate company, the Wynn Las Vegas casino, U.S. Bank, the American Gaming Association and others. This money serves as a pool of cash raised by the debate host, separate from the corporate funding which endows the presidential debates convenor since 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).  

An analysis of hundreds of archival documents and records obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests reveal the way in which debate sponsors and hosts rely heavily, by necessity and design, on corporate money to bring the debates to the public. In the process, the debates become yet another influence avenue for corporations.

Records about these matters were not easily obtained. One prospective host, Georgia College, initially denied responding to an open records request submitted by Shadowproof about its presidential debates hosting proposal. Georgia College argued it would “compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts and the nondisclosure of which is necessary for the protection of life, safety, or public property.”

Upon appeal, the College reneged on the initial denial, but then said it would cost over $3,000 to obtain the documents. Similarly, at Lakewood University, host of the 2016 vice presidential debate, the school’s public records officer informed Shadowproof that its records request would cost over $22,000 to fulfill. This was narrowed down from its initial $35,000 fulfillment estimate.

Suffice to say, these examples are not among the records obtained by Shadowproof.

Shadowy Corporate Cash

There is the money disclosed which funds the debates, and then there is the money raised by debate hosts by mandate.

Today, hosts must raise roughly $2 million of this money on their own and show proof of the ability to do so in the applications they submit to CPD as a hosting prerequisite. This is separate from the money CPD raises to support its general operations budget, listed as $3.25 million on its 2014 IRS 990 form, much of which historically has also come from corporations.

Documents from the University of Massachusetts-Boston University Archives and Special Collections put the latter on full display.

In 2000, the CPD required debate hosts to pay $550,000 “to defray direct and indirect costs and expenses of producing the Debate,” although the entire debate was budgeted at $1.2 million. A little over two weeks before the debate, an internal memo warned there would be a $418,000 deficit, conservatively speaking, “if no more pledges [were] forthcoming.”

A year earlier, local leaders embarked on an intense fundraising drive to cover this clearly overwhelming cost.

Thomas Menino, then-Mayor of Boston, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and then-Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci held a breakfast in November 1999 with 35 “corporate and civic leaders,” including representatives of various Boston 100 companies, ultimately raising $547,500 of their $600,000 goal. They were helped in this effort by the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

The debate fundraising committee’s donor contact list reveals dozens of corporate names, from financial firms, banks, and insurance companies to household names like Gillette, Dunkin Donuts, and Anheuser-Busch. The final sponsor list includes these corporations.

Despite the intense fundraising drive by the hosts, the CPD’s mentality was that it was wholly in charge. As outlined in an internal memo to staff in early 2000: “Think of the debate as a condo. We own and prep everything up to and including the walls/floors/ceilings. The CPD ‘owns’ the inside.”

The 2008 debate cycle offered more of the same. Documents obtained from University of Mississippi show the school utilized recently-retired U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), who became a corporate lobbyist immediately after leaving office. Lott helped attract corporate donations for the debate.

“I know that you know how to approach the leaders of the various companies, and we rely on your good judgment in making those contacts,” wrote Ole Miss’ then-Chancellor Robert Khayat to Lott in a June 2008 letter. “There will be special events for the donors, and there will be significant signage and recognition of each of them.”

A document marked “Confidential Draft” and titled “Presidential Debate Sponsorship Opportunities” shows corporate donors to the debate were offered a listing in the debate program, a commemorative wall plaque, recognition in all Ole Miss publications, an invitation to a “special dinner and program the night of the debate,” and “other opportunities as negotiated.”

Social opportunities, like dinners, matter because many politicians, political consultants, and other politically-connected VIPs attend presidential debates and help make the debate something much more elaborate than what’s beamed on television and streamed on the internet.

Other documents from Ole Miss show it asked for money from the likes of General Motors, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and others such as Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, Apple, Nissan, Comcast and Raytheon. Companies like FedEx, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Southern Company, Chevron and Entergy all ended up as Ole Miss donors as well.

Debates: A Costly Endeavor

Debates are expensive. In 1976, the League of Women Voters — the civic organization that had taken it upon itself to organize the debates for their first 12 years — aimed for a budget of about $229,863 for all three debates that year, or around $972,991 in today’s dollars.

By 1992, the cost ballooned to $500,000, or nearly $860,000 adjusted for inflation, for each debate, according to a document obtained from Johns Hopkins University’s Ferdinand Hamburger Archives. In 2004, documents obtained from Arizona State University show ASU was required to raise $2 million, or $2.5 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation.

Documents obtained from the University of Mississippi show by 2008 the cost had risen to $2.3 million (again $2.5 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation) for Ole Miss.

Other documents obtained reflect in 2015, when the city of McAllen, Texas applied to host a CPD debate for this year’s election cycle, the cost increased to $2.5 million.

Costs can easily rise above this, however: When Long Island’s Hofstra University hosted a debate for the second time in 2012, it cost the university a total of $4.5 million.

This money raised by debate hosts goes toward covering a variety of expenses, including everything from set design and equipment to marketing expenses and salaries for staff and personnel, as well as debate moderators. In fact, in 1976, the moderators pocketed $1,000 (or around $4,200 today) per debate plus travel expenses, according to a League budget document from that year obtained from the University of Maryland Library’s Special Collections.

Shifting the Burden

Under the auspices of the League, it was the League itself that did its own fundraising and covered the expense of arranging the debates. The CPD, however, outsources this cost to the host sites, despite the significant amount of corporate fundraising the CPD already does.

In addition, the McAllen application shows the CPD charged host applicants a non-refundable application fee of $8,000, which covered “administrative costs, a pre-selection site survey, and technical evaluations.” It also warned it could charge applicants extra fees if additional surveys are required.

Given the costs of hosting a debate and even the costs and rigors of simply applying to do so, why do colleges or universities host debates?

As multiple stakeholders wrote in letters urging the CPD to hold a debate in New York’s Rockland Community College last year, host sites look forward to the economic benefits of hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors pouring into the host town’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses. (Rockland did not succeed in convincing CPD to allow them to be a host.) 

The events also provide valuable national exposure to the hosts. “It would showcase our city for what it is, a great community, not the border war you hear about from networks that have never been here,” McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez told Shadowproof. “Of course, we also knew it would have a short term positive economic impact to our community,”

Direct Corporate Contributions

The towns and venues, typically colleges, are forced into a position of sourcing money from wherever they can in order to win the opportunity to host a debate. In turn, this often means turning to corporate and elite donor networks.

The League began this trend, starting with the very first debate it sponsored in 1976. A perennially money-starved organization, if the League was to have any hope of making the debates happen, it needed to look everywhere it could to raise funds.

By August 13, 1976, it had sent 586 letters and made 41 phone calls to a combination of corporations, charitable foundations (by far the largest portion) and individuals according to a document obtained from the University of Maryland’s Special Collections.

“If I went to a corporate office and asked for debate money, I might be lucky to get $500,” Nancy Neuman, former League president, told Shadowproof in an interview. “Campaign finance laws were different back then.”

Neuman is right. On August 27, the FEC banned the League from receiving corporate or union funding for the debates, forcing them to solicit money solely from individuals. It was a decision the League was unhappy with at the time, with Chairman Ruth Clusen saying it “limits us.” One year later, the League successfully sued the FEC over the decision, overturning it.

“As soon as the new regulation went into effect, the League began to raise money from corporations for the 1980 presidential debates,” states a document produced by the League.

According to the same document, the League secured donations of $50,000 or more from companies like IBM, Chevron, Young & Rubicam (a PR firm), and Covington & Burling. They raised nearly $700,000 for the debates. Nearly half of this total came from only six corporations, which the League described as a “breakthrough.”

Even before the FEC’s decision, 27 corporations and foundations turned down the League’s entreaties, and internal documents from the time obtained from the University of Maryland suggest the kind of persistence League members needed to convince reluctant companies to give. But presidential debates were not yet a fixture of election season.

“We face a chicken-and-egg situation,” wrote Jim Karayn, the executive director for the presidential debates hosted by the League, in 1976.

“Foundations and industries have both told us that money will be available if the candidates agree to debate. But without up-front funds, it is difficult to mount a campaign large enough, and professional enough, to attract the candidates,” Karayn added.

By the mid-to-late 1980s, the situation changed dramatically and presidential debates now a critical component of the campaign cycle. And, by 1984, the list of the League’s “major contributors” for the debates had dramatically expanded, with names like Standard Oil, AT&T, Hallmark, J. C. Penney, and Chrysler joining the fray.

This escalated with the takeover of the debates by the CPD in 1988, a nominally non-partisan organization, but which in fact has substantial links to both major parties and was created via the signatures of the heads of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.

“When the [CPD] took over, they immediately got a lot of money from big corporations, which we never could do,” Neuman told Shadowproof. “We’re talking like $100,000.”

Documents gathered from the Gerald Ford Presidential Library show CPD invited Melvin Laird — a former Congressman and Nixon’s secretary of defense — onto its advisory board in 1987, one of a “small number of leaders” from business, the arts, academia, and other sectors that it tapped for this purpose.

“I know that you serve on the board of Metropolitan Life, Martin Marietta, and Phillips Petroleum,” wrote CPD co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr. — then still the chairman of the Republican National Committee — in a letter to Laird one year later. “Would you be so kind as to assist the Commission by attempting to solicit financial support from the three companies in question?”

At the same time, the corporate donors, which had once given to the League, switched over to funding the CPD. AT&T, Hallmark, IBM and Chrysler all became contributors to the CPD, and they were joined by companies like Philip Morris, Prudential, Ford, Nabisco, Revlon, and Pfizer.

Since then, corporate donations directly to the CPD have remained a staple in the election cycles ahead and 2016 has brought more of the same.

“What Do We Get In Return?”

Critics say it is not hard to see why so many corporations help bankroll the debates. It is not just to get public recognition and for a chance to see the debate in-person.

“I think that the companies, they wanted to be on the good side of the politicians,” former League President Nancy Neuman told Shadowproof. “They couldn’t get anything out of us.”

In fact, Stephen Lambright, Anheuser-Busch’s former general counsel and executive, made the company’s goals clear in a 1996 interview, where he said the company’s aim was to “maintain relationships.”

“What do we get in return?” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported him saying in a 2000 article. “Maybe an open door to an elected or government official. The only thing we ask is the chance to give our point of view.”

CPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Reporting contributed by Itai Vardi.

Branko Marcetic and Steve Horn

Branko Marcetic and Steve Horn

Steve Horn (@SteveAHorn) is writer for DeSmogBlog.com and freelance investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The Intercept, Vice News, Al Jazeera America, Wisconsin Watch, LetsRun.com, NUVO, Isthmus and elsewhere. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Branko Marcetic (@BMarchetich) is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in In These Times, The American Prospect, Jacobin and other publications. He is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand.