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United States presidential election debates, 2012

On October 31, 2011, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced four debates for the 2012 U.S. presidential general election, slated for various locations around the United States in October 2012 – three of them involving the major party presidential nominees (later determined to be Democratic President Barack Obama from Illinois and former Republican Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts), and one involving the vice-presidential nominees (Vice President Joe Biden from Delaware and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin).[1]

The CPD stipulates three criteria for eligibility: constitutionally eligible, appearance on enough ballots to potentially reach 270 electoral votes, and average at least 15% on five selected national polls.[2] Four candidates achieved the first two criteria: Democratic nominee Barack Obama, Green nominee Jill Stein,[3] Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson,[4] and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Only Obama and Romney also satisfy the third criterion of averaging 15% in five selected national polls and thus are the only two to appear in 2012 CPD debates.

The moderators for the debates were announced on August 13, 2012.[5][6]

All four debates took place between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. PDT).[7]

Subsequently, on October 3, 2012, both campaigns executed a memorandum of understanding governing technical and administrative details of the debate.[8] The agreement describes the role of the moderator, rules applicable to each debate, staging and seating arrangements, and ticket distribution, and was signed by Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg, general counsel of the Obama and Romney campaigns, respectively.[8]

A non-CPD sanctioned debate, moderated by Free and Equal Elections Foundation in protest of the CPD's monopoly of presidential debates, took place on October 23, 2012 between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. EDT. Four third party candidates — Rocky Anderson, Virgil Goode, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein — took part. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were also invited, but did not participate.[9] On October 22, the Free and Equal Elections Foundation announced a second third-party presidential debate that was originally scheduled between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. EDT on October 30, featuring the top two candidates from the post-debate poll conducted after the first debate. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson were selected for the second debate using Instant run-off voting.[10] The debate was hosted by RT.[11] On October 28, the date of this debate was changed to November 5 due to Hurricane Sandy.[12]

Ralph Nader hosted and moderated a 2-hour presidential debate between Rocky Anderson, Jill Stein, Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson, on November 4, 2012.[13]


  • Debates 1
  • Debate schedule 2
  • October 3: First presidential debate (University of Denver) 3
    • Format 3.1
    • Reception 3.2
    • Moderation 3.3
  • October 11: Vice presidential debate (Centre College) 4
    • Format 4.1
    • Reception 4.2
    • Moderation 4.3
  • October 16: Second presidential debate (Hofstra University) 5
    • Format 5.1
    • Reception 5.2
    • Moderation 5.3
  • October 18: online presidential debate 6
  • October 22: Third presidential debate (Lynn University) 7
    • Format 7.1
    • Reception 7.2
    • Moderation 7.3
  • Protests over excluded candidates 8
    • Antitrust lawsuit 8.1
    • Arrest of Green Party candidates outside second debate and lawsuit 8.2
    • Withdrawal of sponsors 8.3
  • October 23: First Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (Hilton Chicago) 9
    • Format 9.1
    • Reception 9.2
    • Moderation 9.3
  • November 4: Ralph Nader presidential debate (Busboys and Poets) 10
  • November 5: Second Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (RT America studio) 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14


United States presidential election debates, 2012
 N°. Date Place Sponsor Participants
 P  Participant.   I  Invitee (to a future debate).     N  Non-invitee.   A  Absent invitee.     O  Out of race (exploring or suspended). Anderson Goode Obama Johnson Romney Stein
1 October 3, 2012 Denver,
Commission on Presidential Debates
2 October 16, 2012 Hempstead,
CNN / Commission on Presidential Debates N N P N P N
3 October 18, 2012 Google+ Hangout N N N P N P
4 October 22, 2012 Boca Raton,
CBS / Commission on Presidential Debates N N P N P N
5 October 23, 2012 Chicago,
Ora.TV / Free and Equal Elections Foundation P P A P A P
6 November 4, 2012 Washington,
Ralph Nader P P N P N P
7 November 5, 2012 Washington,
RT / Free and Equal Elections Foundation N N N P N P

Debate schedule

First presidential debate (domestic policy)
Wednesday, October 3; Magness Arena, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado[1]
Moderator: Jim Lehrer[6]PBS
Video: C-SPAN, BBC, Video on YouTube
Transcripts: CNN, NPR w/audio, Washington Post, LA Times, The New York Times
Fact-checking:, Washington Post
Vice presidential (domestic and foreign policy)
Thursday, October 11; Norton Center for the Arts, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky[1]
Moderator: Martha Raddatz[6]ABC
Video: C-SPAN, BBC, Video on YouTube
Transcripts: CNN, NPR w/audio, Washington Post
Fact-checking:,, Washington Post
Second presidential debate (town hall format)
Tuesday, October 16; David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York[1]
Moderator: Candy Crowley[6]CNN
Video: C-SPAN, BBC, Video on YouTube
Transcripts: CNN, NPR w/audio, McClatchy, Washington Post
Fact-checking:,, Politico,, The New York Times, The Washington Post online presidential debate (third party)
Thursday, October 18; Google+ hangout
Moderator: Stephen Peace[14] -
Video: YouTube
Third presidential debate (foreign policy)
Monday, October 22; World Performing Arts Center, Lynn University, Boca Raton, Florida[1]
Moderator: Bob Schieffer[6]CBS
Video: C-SPAN, BBC, Video on YouTube
Transcripts: CNN, NPR w/audio, McClatchy, Washington Post
Fact-checking:,, Politico,, The New York Times, The Washington Post
First Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (third party)
Tuesday, October 23; Hilton Chicago, Chicago, Illinois[15]
Moderator: Larry King[16] – Ora.TV
Video: C-SPAN, Video on YouTube
Fact-checking: The Washington Post
Ralph Nader presidential debate (third party)
Sunday, November 4; Busboys and Poets, Washington, D.C.
Moderator: Ralph Nader[17]
Video: Video on YouTube
Second Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (third party)
Monday, November 5; RT America studio, Washington, D.C.[10]
Moderator: Thom Hartmann - RT
Video: RT, Video on YouTube

October 3: First presidential debate (University of Denver)

Moderated by Jim Lehrer, PBS
Date October 3, 2012
Location University of Denver
Denver, Colorado
President Barack Obama
Governor Mitt Romney

The first presidential debate took place on Wednesday, October 3 at Colorado's University of Denver, and was moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS.

Former Governor Mitt Romney


According to the memorandum of understanding agreed to by both campaigns prior to the debate,[18] and announced to the public prior to the start, both candidates would have no opening statement. There were six 15 minute segments, with the moderator introducing a topic and giving one candidate two minutes, the other candidate two minutes, and approximately 8 minutes and 45 seconds of facilitated discussion between the two candidates, with both candidates receiving approximately equal time. However, due to candidate responses extending beyond the limit, the last few segments were markedly shorter.[19] Both candidates spoke in front of a podium. Other than applause at the beginning and end of the debate, there was no audience participation.[20]

The segments were on the economy and job creation, the federal deficit, entitlements and differences between the candidates on Social Security, health care and the Affordable Care Act, the role and mission of the federal government of the United States, and governing in a presidential system and dealing with gridlock.[20][21]


More than 67 million Americans watched the debate, making it the most widely viewed first presidential debate in 32 years.[22] A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found that 46% thought that Romney had done better, 22% thought Obama had done better, and 32% thought that it was a tie.[23] A CNN poll found a greater advantage for Romney among debate watchers overall, with 67% believing the former Massachusetts governor had done better, 25% believing that the president had done better, and 8% believing that it was a tie.[24] A Gallup poll found that 72% of the debate watchers believed Romney was the clear winner, 20% believed that Obama had won, and 9% believed it was a tie or had no opinion; the widest margin of victory for any presidential debate in Gallup history.[25] Time Magazine's Joe Klein stated, "It was, in fact, one of the most inept performances I’ve ever seen by a sitting President."[26]

The primary critiques of Obama's performance were that he looked detached; seldom addressed his opponent directly; and was often looking down while Romney was speaking.[27][28]

Several independent, CBS, CNN, The Washington Post, and Politico found that both Obama and Romney stretched the facts [in the debate]. But Obama did it a little less."[32]


The performance of Jim Lehrer as the moderator was widely criticized for frequently allowing the candidates to speak over their time limits.[33][34][35] He said that he intended to have a looser format and was not trying to restrict the candidates.

Fox News wrote, "The only consolation President Barack Obama had for his poor showing during Wednesday’s debate was that moderator Jim Lehrer did even worse."[36] Dan Abrams of ABC News tweeted, "Regardless of who is winning this debate, Jim Lehrer is losing".[37]

Lehrer defended his performance saying, "I’ve always said this and finally I had a chance to demonstrate it: The moderator should be seen little and heard even less. It is up to the candidates to ask the follow-up questions and challenge one another." Unlike many others, both Romney and Obama made favorable remarks about Lehrer.[35]

October 11: Vice presidential debate (Centre College)

Moderated by Martha Raddatz, ABC
Date October 11, 2012
Location Centre College
Danville, Kentucky
Vice President Joe Biden
Congressman Paul Ryan

The vice presidential debate took place on Thursday, October 11 at Kentucky's Centre College, and was moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC.

Vice-President Joe Biden
Congressman Paul Ryan


The first and only debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan focused on domestic and foreign policy, and was broken down into nine 10-minute segments.[38] The foreign policy segments included questions on the attack on the American consulate in Libya, Iran, the civil war in Syria, and Afghanistan. The domestic policy segments included questions on health care, abortion, the national debt, Social Security, Medicare, and taxes.


A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found that 50% of those viewers thought Biden did better, 31% thought Ryan did better, and 19% thought they tied.[39] A Reuters poll indicated Biden the superior candidate, 42% to 35% with 23% undecided or believing they tied.[40] A CNN poll of debate watchers found that 48% of viewers believed Ryan had done better, 44% believed Biden had done better, and 8% believed they tied or had no opinion; CNN noted that the debate audience polled was about eight percentage points more Republican than the general population.[41] Nate Silver's analysis of polling after the debate led to his concluding that, though both debaters performed adequately, Biden's performance helped to slow the momentum of the Romney campaign following the first presidential debate.[42]

The debate was watched by over 51 million people, making it the third most-watched vice presidential debate, behind that of 1984 (57 million) and 2008 (70 million).[43]


Martha Raddatz was generally praised for her moderation during this debate.[44][45] Sarah Palin, the former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, criticized her for being too "tough" on Paul Ryan.[46]

October 16: Second presidential debate (Hofstra University)

Moderated by Candy Crowley, CNN
Date October 16, 2012
Location Hofstra University
Hempstead, New York
President Barack Obama
Governor Mitt Romney

The second presidential debate took place on Tuesday, October 16 at New York's Hofstra University, and was moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN. The debate followed a town hall format, with a group of noncommitted voters asking questions to the candidates, after which the moderator would ask follow-up questions.

The second debate dealt primarily with domestic affairs, but, unlike the first debate, did include some segues into foreign policy. Topics discussed included taxes, unemployment, job creation, the national debt, energy and energy independence, women's rights, both legal and illegal immigration, and the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.


The memorandum of understanding between both candidates, each candidate received two minutes to answer the question, followed by a two-minute rebuttal. The candidates often engaged each other during the rebuttal period, and Crowley also followed up with candidates.[47][48]

Although moderator Crowley had intended to allow 15 voters to ask their questions, due to the length of candidate responses, 11 voters had time to ask questions of the candidates.[49] The questions were:

  • To Romney, from a college student concerned about not being able to support himself after graduation
  • To Obama, on the role of the Secretary of Energy in reducing gasoline prices
  • To Romney, on his tax rate reduction plan and the potential of restricting or eliminating deductions and credits as a result
  • To Obama, on inequalities between men and women in the workplace, specifically women earning less than men for the same work
  • To Romney, on the differences between him and former president George W. Bush
  • To Obama, on what he has done or accomplished to earn the questioner's vote in 2012
  • To Romney, on his plans for immigrants without permanent residency in the United States
  • To Obama, on who denied enhanced security prior to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi
  • To Obama, on his accomplishments in reducing availability of assault weapons
  • To Romney, on outsourcing and his plans on obtaining and retaining jobs in the United States
  • To Romney, on the biggest misperceptions about him[50][51]


A CNN poll of debate watchers found that 46% of respondents believed that Obama had done better, 39% believed that Romney had done better, and 11% had no opinion or believed they tied; CNN noted that the debate audience polled was about eight percentage points more Republican than the general population, similar to the Vice Presidential debate.[52] A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found that 37% believed Obama was superior in the second debate, 30% said that Romney was superior, and 33% called the debate a tie. 55% of the voters CBS polled said that Obama gave direct answers, while 49% said this about Romney.[53]

The consensus among liberals as well as some conservatives was that Obama's showing in the second debate was considerably stronger in comparison with his performance in the first debate.[54] Analysts characterized him as more assertive and "tough" in the second debate.[55][56][57] Romney was perceived to have not done as well as his previous performance, missing several opportunities to rebut Obama.[58] In answer to a question about equal pay for women, Romney said that as Governor of Massachusetts, he had solicited "binders full of women" qualified to serve in his administration. His comment became an Internet meme and was parodied with pages on social networking sites.[59][60][61] It was also adopted as a political attack line on Romney's attitude towards women issues.[62][63] Women's groups, such as MassGAP, responded that they had approached Romney with suggestions for qualified candidates to have him commit to including more women. MassGAP stated they had done the same for his opponent.[64][65][66][67][68][69] Commentators criticized him for appearing edgy, tense and irritable, off his game, and interrupting too much.

Polls conducted by Gallup poll.[73]


The discussion of the 2012 Benghazi attack produced an exchange known for the phrase Please proceed, governor, later described by Frank Rich as hilarious,[74] and covered by Jon Stewart at The Daily Show.[75]

The candidates disagreed as to whether Obama declared the Libyan consular attack as terrorism the day after the event or, as Romney claimed, erroneously said it was a protest caused by an anti-Muslim video for two weeks before identifying it as a terrorist attack.

The end of that exchange was a comment by moderator Candy Crowley where she affirmed the facts of Obama's statement, referring to a transcript of his speech.[76] Crowley said in part, during the debate, "He did call it an act of terror."[77] In his Rose Garden closing remarks, the President had said in part, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."[78]

October 18: online presidential debate

Moderated by Stephen Peace,
Date October 18, 2012
Location Google+ Hangout
Governor Gary Johnson
Dr. Jill Stein hosted an online presidential debate on October 18, 2012. It featured two third party candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

October 22: Third presidential debate (Lynn University)

Moderated by Bob Schieffer, CBS
Date October 22, 2012
Location Lynn University
Boca Raton, Florida
President Barack Obama
Governor Mitt Romney

The third presidential debate took place on Monday, October 22 at Florida's Lynn University, and was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS.

Topics discussed included the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Iran's nuclear program, the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian civil war, relations with Israel, relations with Pakistan, the War on Terror, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the size and scope of the U.S. military, and relations and trade with China, as well as the rise of that nation. Governor Romney also briefly broached the subject of the ongoing insurgency in Mali. Although the debate was supposed to strictly concern only foreign policy, the candidates did manage to fit a few domestic policy issues, such as job creation, the federal deficit, and education into the discussion.


The format of this debate was identical to that of the first debate. There were six 15-minute segments, with the moderator introducing a topic and giving each candidate two minutes to respond, before allowing the candidates to discuss the topics.


A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found that 53% believed that Obama won, 23% believed that Romney won, and 24% called the debate a tie.[79] A CNN poll of debate watchers found that 48% of respondents called Obama the winner, 40% called Romney the winner, and 12% had no opinion or thought they tied; CNN noted that the debate audience polled was about five percentage points more Republican than the general population.[80][81]


Schieffer's moderation, which was perceived as confident but affable, received praise.[82][83]

Protests over excluded candidates

Antitrust lawsuit

On September 21, 2012, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson filed an antitrust lawsuit in the US District Court for the Central District of California against the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. The suit alleges that the three private companies have conspired in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act to limit competition and that in doing so they are injuring the Johnson campaign and the American electorate.[84][85]

Arrest of Green Party candidates outside second debate and lawsuit

On October 16, 2012, Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and vice-presidential nominee Cheri Honkala were arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to take part in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.[86][87][88] The two women claim they were taken to a warehouse, and strapped for eight hours to chairs with plastic wrist restraints before being released.[89]

On October 22, 2012, the Stein campaign announced a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates claiming, "that the CPD, Democratic National Committee, and Republican National Committee, together with the Federal Election Commission and Lynn University, had deprived her of her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and free speech, as well as her statutorily protected civil rights."[90]

Withdrawal of sponsors

Three of the debate sponsors dropped out ahead of the first presidential debate due to the exclusion of major third party candidates. These companies were BBH New York, YWCA USA[91] and Philips Electronics.[92]

October 23: First Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (Hilton Chicago)

Moderated by Larry King, Ora.TV
Date October 23, 2012
Location Hilton Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
Congressman Virgil Goode
Governor Gary Johnson
Mayor Rocky Anderson
Dr. Jill Stein

The Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Virgil Goode and Rocky Anderson, which was held in Chicago at 9:00pm EDT on Oct. 23, 2012.[9] Veteran broadcaster Larry King of Ora.TV served as moderator for the debate,[93] which was streamed live online.[94][95] It was also streamed live by Ora.TV on YouTube[96] and was broadcast live by C-SPAN,[93] Link TV,[97] Russia Today[97] and Al Jazeera English.[97]


Each candidate was given an opportunity to make a two-minute opening statement. Then, six questions were asked to each of the four candidates and the candidates were given one minute to answer. However, the moderator accidentally started with the first question instead of allowing the candidates to do the opening statement. The opening statements had to follow their answers to the first question.[98] The questions were:


The Free and Equal Elections Foundation conducted a post-debate poll to determine which candidates would progress to their second debate. The poll found 55% of viewers thought Johnson had done the best, 31% thought Stein had done the best, 8% had felt Anderson had done the best, and 6% had felt Goode had done the best.[99] The second round of the instant run-off vote showed that the top two candidates were still Johnson and Stein; these candidates were allowed to progress to the second debate.[99]


The moderator Larry King received some criticism for his mishap at the beginning of the debate. Some commentators thought this showed the debate's irrelevance.[100]

November 4: Ralph Nader presidential debate (Busboys and Poets)

Moderated by Ralph Nader
Date November 4, 2012
Location Busboys and Poets
Washington, D.C.
Congressman Virgil Goode
Governor Gary Johnson
Mayor Rocky Anderson
Dr. Jill Stein

Ralph Nader hosted and moderated a debate that took place on November 4, 2012 at Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C. between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.[101] Gary Johnson, Virgil Goode, Rocky Anderson and Jill Stein participated.[102]

November 5: Second Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate (RT America studio)

Moderated by Thom Hartmann, RT
Date November 5, 2012
Location RT America studio
Washington, D.C.
Governor Gary Johnson
Dr. Jill Stein

After the previous Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate, a second debate was announced,[103] this time focusing on foreign policy. The debate was hosted by RT at the RT America Studio in Washington D.C. and took place on November 5, 2012 between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. It was initially to be held on October 30, 2012, but was delayed due to Hurricane Sandy.[12] The candidates that participated were those that won the instant-runoff vote after the previous debate - Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

See also


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External links

  • Commission on Presidential Debates Announces Sites, Dates, and Candidate Selection Criteria for 2012 General Election,  
  • 2012 Candidate Selection Criteria,  
  • Washington PostCoverage at the
  • University of Denver debate official site
  • Centre College debate official site
  • Hofstra University debate official site
  • Lynn University debate official site
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