How to remove moderator bias from the presidential debates

The 2016 presidential primary debates are arguably at a breaking point.  Donald Trump's refusal to participate in Thursday night's Fox News/Google debate raises to a new level expressions of candidate dissatisfaction with debate questions and debate format. 

The problem is that the current format gives moderators and the news organizations that they represent way too much power.  They engineer the questions to be asked.  They control which candidates have an opportunity to answer what question, and for how long, and at what time.  They even pick members of the public to ask biased questions.  As a result, debates have gotten quite unfair.  For example:

  • Donald Trump.  The leading candidate in the Republican race pulled out of Thursday's debate after Fox News included Megyn Kelly as a questioner over Trump's objections, which stemmed from the question that she asked at the outset of the first debate.  In addition, some argue THAT Fox News and Google stacked the deck against Trump in advance of this week's debate with questions to be asked by an illegal immigrant U.S. Army veteran and by a Muslim-American – both young women.
  • Jim Webb.  The lone moderate in the Democratic Party's race dropped out of the Democratic campaign almost immediately after a frustrating first Democratic debate in which he felt he was ignored and poorly treated. 
  • Bernie Sanders.  According to Dick Morris, the format of CNN's final Democratic primary debate kept Bernie Sanders from challenging Hillary Clinton's lies.  And one of the "town hall" questioners revealed that he had been told to ask the softball question for Hillary that he asked.
  • Mitt Romney.  CNN moderator Candy Crowley and President Obama enacted what appeared to be a prepared script to get Obama off the hook for misleading the American people about the terrorist nature of the Benghazi attack, which left several dead Americans.

As these examples demonstrate, moderators and the organizations that they represent use their power over the process to tip the scales in favor of one candidate or the other.  Anti-establishment candidates appear to get targeted during the primary election debates, while Republicans get targeted in the general election debates.

These debates are too important to be left to moderators.  Debates serve democracy.  They highlight candidates' strengths and flaws and provide a forum for candidates to explain their positions or debunk the claims of others. 

So it's time we gave debate rules and technology some closer thought.  We can take bias entirely out of the process by making the clock the moderator.  Doing so would place the candidates in control of the debate, and make the debates more efficient, and more fun to boot!

Our proposal would have candidates enter each debate segment with a certain number of minutes to speak.  Candidates can choose when to use that time.  Candidates can use their time to respond to each other or question each other as appropriate.  The debate would function, much as a competitive chess game functions, with the clock insuring fairness.  As one of us wrote last fall:

The key technology would be a computerized microphone control system linked to something akin to a multi-player chess clock.  Candidates would push a button to activate the microphone, and then enter the line to speak.

If candidates wanted jump the queue and speak next, they would slide a control at the podium to exchange one minute of allocated time for less than a minute of actual speaking time. In a sense, the candidate for whom speaking next is most precious will speak next.

Once the microphone goes live, the clock starts counting down.  Turn the microphone off and the clock stops.  When time is up, the microphone won't turn on.

How would debates change?

  • Candidates would have the freedom to raise new questions for each other if they think it appropriate.
  • Debates would be faster-paced.  Candidates would keep their statements to the point, because they will want to preserve time to engage in the debate later on, potentially allowing the debate to cover more issues.
  • Debates would be more informative.  Today, moderators often deny citizens the ability to compare all of the relevant candidates.  If only half of the candidates have an opportunity to speak about their tax plans, how are voters supposed to decide which plan is best?  With the clock moderating, all candidates will have an opportunity to enter on all questions if they wish (and if they have managed time efficiently).  And a candidate's failure to address a topic will also become informative.
  • Debates will involve more dialogue between candidates.  Under today's moderator-centered debates, candidates have a strong disincentive to draw contrasts with their colleagues, as this gifts the colleague precious "rebuttal" time. 

An open question is how initial debate time would be allocated.  The time allocation could be equal – or it could be unequal, perhaps allocated as a function of how well candidates are polling.

Would networks agree?  Particularly if disempowering network moderators brought more candidates to the stage, it seems unlikely that ratings would suffer under this format.  Not only would debate often go faster, but for both political junkies and casual observers, time management will add a new element of strategy and intensity.

Overall, creating a market for debate time, and making the clock the moderator would yield debates that are more intense and more productive for democracy.  This would also allow candidates to more fully control what happens on stage.  Candidates will manage their moments on camera for maximum impact, and voters will win as a result.

Jesse Richman is an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University.  The Richmans co-authored the 2014 book Balanced Trade: Ending the Unbearable Costs of America's Trade Deficits, published by Lexington Books.

The 2016 presidential primary debates are arguably at a breaking point.  Donald Trump's refusal to participate in Thursday night's Fox News/Google debate raises to a new level expressions of candidate dissatisfaction with debate questions and debate format. 

The problem is that the current format gives moderators and the news organizations that they represent way too much power.  They engineer the questions to be asked.  They control which candidates have an opportunity to answer what question, and for how long, and at what time.  They even pick members of the public to ask biased questions.  As a result, debates have gotten quite unfair.  For example:

  • Donald Trump.  The leading candidate in the Republican race pulled out of Thursday's debate after Fox News included Megyn Kelly as a questioner over Trump's objections, which stemmed from the question that she asked at the outset of the first debate.  In addition, some argue THAT Fox News and Google stacked the deck against Trump in advance of this week's debate with questions to be asked by an illegal immigrant U.S. Army veteran and by a Muslim-American – both young women.
  • Jim Webb.  The lone moderate in the Democratic Party's race dropped out of the Democratic campaign almost immediately after a frustrating first Democratic debate in which he felt he was ignored and poorly treated. 
  • Bernie Sanders.  According to Dick Morris, the format of CNN's final Democratic primary debate kept Bernie Sanders from challenging Hillary Clinton's lies.  And one of the "town hall" questioners revealed that he had been told to ask the softball question for Hillary that he asked.
  • Mitt Romney.  CNN moderator Candy Crowley and President Obama enacted what appeared to be a prepared script to get Obama off the hook for misleading the American people about the terrorist nature of the Benghazi attack, which left several dead Americans.

As these examples demonstrate, moderators and the organizations that they represent use their power over the process to tip the scales in favor of one candidate or the other.  Anti-establishment candidates appear to get targeted during the primary election debates, while Republicans get targeted in the general election debates.

These debates are too important to be left to moderators.  Debates serve democracy.  They highlight candidates' strengths and flaws and provide a forum for candidates to explain their positions or debunk the claims of others. 

So it's time we gave debate rules and technology some closer thought.  We can take bias entirely out of the process by making the clock the moderator.  Doing so would place the candidates in control of the debate, and make the debates more efficient, and more fun to boot!

Our proposal would have candidates enter each debate segment with a certain number of minutes to speak.  Candidates can choose when to use that time.  Candidates can use their time to respond to each other or question each other as appropriate.  The debate would function, much as a competitive chess game functions, with the clock insuring fairness.  As one of us wrote last fall:

The key technology would be a computerized microphone control system linked to something akin to a multi-player chess clock.  Candidates would push a button to activate the microphone, and then enter the line to speak.

If candidates wanted jump the queue and speak next, they would slide a control at the podium to exchange one minute of allocated time for less than a minute of actual speaking time. In a sense, the candidate for whom speaking next is most precious will speak next.

Once the microphone goes live, the clock starts counting down.  Turn the microphone off and the clock stops.  When time is up, the microphone won't turn on.

How would debates change?

  • Candidates would have the freedom to raise new questions for each other if they think it appropriate.
  • Debates would be faster-paced.  Candidates would keep their statements to the point, because they will want to preserve time to engage in the debate later on, potentially allowing the debate to cover more issues.
  • Debates would be more informative.  Today, moderators often deny citizens the ability to compare all of the relevant candidates.  If only half of the candidates have an opportunity to speak about their tax plans, how are voters supposed to decide which plan is best?  With the clock moderating, all candidates will have an opportunity to enter on all questions if they wish (and if they have managed time efficiently).  And a candidate's failure to address a topic will also become informative.
  • Debates will involve more dialogue between candidates.  Under today's moderator-centered debates, candidates have a strong disincentive to draw contrasts with their colleagues, as this gifts the colleague precious "rebuttal" time. 

An open question is how initial debate time would be allocated.  The time allocation could be equal – or it could be unequal, perhaps allocated as a function of how well candidates are polling.

Would networks agree?  Particularly if disempowering network moderators brought more candidates to the stage, it seems unlikely that ratings would suffer under this format.  Not only would debate often go faster, but for both political junkies and casual observers, time management will add a new element of strategy and intensity.

Overall, creating a market for debate time, and making the clock the moderator would yield debates that are more intense and more productive for democracy.  This would also allow candidates to more fully control what happens on stage.  Candidates will manage their moments on camera for maximum impact, and voters will win as a result.

Jesse Richman is an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University.  The Richmans co-authored the 2014 book Balanced Trade: Ending the Unbearable Costs of America's Trade Deficits, published by Lexington Books.