Fixing the General Election Debates

Amidst all the talk about the rules for the Republican (and to a lesser extent, the Democrtic) presidential debates, it should be remembered that we’ll also be having the usual (presumably three) general election debates in 2016 as well. So it’s of more than passing interest that a pretty distinguished Working Group (basically composed of presidential-level political consultants who are not at this point working for candidates) set up by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center to take a reform-minded look at these debates is releasing a report today with some pretty interesting recommendations.

If you have time, you should peruse the whole report, which is largely based on the realization that the media environment for “televised” debates has changed radically since 1992, the last time the debate format significantly changed. The debates have actually become a relic of the era of network TV domination, with declining viewership and relevance. And so it’s no surprise the most important Working Group recommendations involve reducing the role of debate moderators, who are typically network TV anchors or “personalities.”

The Working Group suggests two alternative models for largely taking the moderators out of the picture. The first is known as the “chess clock” model, wherein the candidates would have control of a fixed block of time (apportioned among several topical time-slots) and could interject themselves virtually at will to ask follow-up questions or challenge statements by their rival. The second deploys the same fixed time constraints as in the past, but lets the candidates, not the moderators, pose the questions. If neither of these new models is adopted, the report suggests broadening the pool of potential moderators beyond TV “talking heads,” and also broadening sources for debate questions to include the public in a non-token way.

The Annenberg Working Group also recommends debates be held earlier to account for the rapid growth of early voting. And in a section of the report I particularly like, it suggests steps to reduce the “debate spectacle.”

No Spin Alley. Other costs now typical of the debate process have become less necessary and useful than in the past. For example, with the rise of social media, the value of “spin alley” has diminished as the senior campaign voices are more likely to use email or Twitter to engage the press both during and after the debate. These changes substantially lessen the need for an elite facility where chosen political spinners and credentialed journalists gather in person to engage in a tired ritual.

No In-Person Audience. The presence of the in-person audience not only raises questions about the seemliness of its composition but its presence carries risks as well. Once the debate begins, despite warnings to remain silent, audience reaction can and has affected the impressions of those viewing at home… Laughter, cheers or jeers also magnify moments and distract attention from the substance of the statements made by the candidates. Although it is sometimes said that these eruptions are primarily a problem for primary debates and have been rare in general election debates, there is no reason to assume that this good fortune will last. After all there have been audible audience responses in general election debates: examples include audience reaction to President Reagan’s answer to a question about his age and the response to the exchange between Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle over any comparison of the latter with President John Kennedy. Even one such episode is too many.

Besides, the report notes, most live-audience members aren’t regular folks or students at the universities hosting debates; they are donors, either to the Presidential Debate Commission that runs the events or to the two major parties that control the Commission.

On a final note, the Annenberg Working Group says there is considerable public sentiment for lowering the threshold for participation by “independent” or third-party candidates, but has formed no consensus for what that threshold might be given the fundamental mission of the general election debates to expose the public to candidates who might actually be elected president.

All in all the recommendations would go a long way towards making these debates more spontaneous and less like just another network reality show, complete with endless network ads. In most cycles general election debates are not going to materially affect the outcome; part of the reason we think of them as crucial is that the very first, in 1960, happened to occur in one of the closet elections then on record. But since the punditocracy is going to treat debates as big “game-change” moments no matter what, we might as well make them as meaningful and B.S.-free as is humanly possible.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.