Presidential debates have been a hot mess for years. Candidates regularly sidestep questions, interrupt each other, and exceed their allotted response time. The entire exercise seems engineered to produce a gotcha moment that goes viral. Voters are left with very little substance to inform their decisions.
The issue came to a head in the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In a CBS poll, 69% of viewers felt “annoyed” by the event, while only 17% felt they were “informed”. The moderator of the debate, Chris Wallace, described it as a “terrible missed opportunity”. And the Commission on Presidential Debates promised they would consider changes after the chaotic faceoff.
There are many simple fixes to procedure that would make presidential debates more civil and informative. But is that what we really want? The harder problems to solve pertain to media incentives and human nature.
The easiest way to improve presidential debates would be to give each candidate a fixed amount of time for the entire debate. If a candidate ran over on one question, the time would be deducted from their closing statement. The candidate with the least amount of overruns would give their closing statement last.
This simple change would transform presidential debates. Candidates would have a strong incentive to speak within the allotted time for each response. The candidate that showed the greatest respect for the rule would get the last word. The other would pay a hefty price.
In the current presidential debate format, there is no penalty for interrupting an opponent. But forcing an error can have a huge payoff. A simple fix would be to deduct time from the interrupter and add time for the opponent to provide a rebuttal.
It has become more common in recent years for candidates to ignore questions and speak on entirely different topics. An elegant way for moderators to contain this problem would be for them to remind viewers of the question after the response. If used sparingly, it would send a strong but tactful signal.
Presidential debates, like many political discussions, focus almost entirely on differences. We’ve come to accept this as a fatality. It’s not. Moderators could just as well ask questions that spotlight agreement between candidates.
On what issue do you think you agree the most with your opponent?
Where do you see the best opportunity to find common ground?
Can you give an example of how you are working toward a bipartisan solution?
Who, in the opposing party, would you be the most inclined to consider for a cabinet position?
Moderators could also ask questions designed to encourage civility, or interject levity.
What do you admire most about your opponent?
If you were to spend an afternoon with your opponent, what would you propose to do?
With so many ways to improve presidential debates, it’s hard to imagine how we got to this point.
The uncomfortable truth is that a large majority of us enjoy watching candidates rip each other apart. It’s entertaining. It’s exciting. Sure, we say we hate it, but rating agencies measure our viewing habits which tell a different story.
Ratings translate into advertising dollars. So media companies have financial incentives to turn presidential debating into a blood sport. If they don’t, revenues sag, investors bail and people get fired.
So ultimately, the problem is us. To fix the problem, we need to rise above our natural propensity for entertainment over information.
Fixing presidential debates isn't that hard.
But can we fix ourselves?
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