Reforming American Presidential Debates

It is difficult to overstate the importance of American presidential debates. Since the inception of televised debate era in 1960, debates have attracted massive viewing audiences. As many as 80 million Americans will tune into any of the American Presidential debates in 2016. As a matter of comparison, conventions by the major parties will be fortunate to grab more than 20 million and the most successful Saturday Night Live episode in history -- the 2008 episode with a live Sarah Palin -- grabbed 17 million viewers. The debates are the rhetorical juggernaut of civic decision making with regard to presidential politics. There is arguably nothing more impactful on public opinion than these debates in October. The stakes of these events make the reform of presidential debating imperative. 

The startling mishaps and mismanagement of the 2012 debates informs the current need for reform. Without question, the most flagrant violation was the egregious conduct of debate “moderator” Candy Crowley. She interrupted the debate to claim that Romney was wrong and President Obama was correct on an important argument regarding the events of Benghazi. There was nothing moderate about her performance, and few remember that Crowley promised in advance that she would break the rules of the event in order to impose her own private sense of politics on the event. Conduct like Crowley’s now casts shadows on the role accorded journalists and has swallowed up George Stephanopoulos as a potential moderator. Stephanopoulos has long been an obvious partisan in his role as moderator and it is peculiar that this now constitutes news.

The role of journalists in these debates since 1960 is one of the most profound distortions of the proper notion of a debate. This problem is not to say journalists should not be able to encounter candidates with questions.  But these journalist conversations should not be misrepresented as debates. They are not. If you were to attend a high school or public debate tournament like the ones being hosted in Dallas for high school nationals in mid-June, you would not see a moderator controlling and manipulating the discussion in the way seen for the past 50 years in American television politics. In fact, junior high, high school, and college students police their own speech times -- managing to stay within time limits without outside interference in thousands of debates every year. In 2012, President Obama and Vice President Biden were given an additional 9:30 minutes by moderators over four debates to defeat their opponents Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Very few experts realize that the worst loss in presidential debate history happened in debate number one of 2012.  President Obama lost 70 to 20 in Gallup polling that night. What ensued was a collective institutional panic as the presidential debate system sought to fix the results of “poor” stage management by moderator Jim Lehrer. Crowley’s interventions were an important part of bringing the debates back to the desired result. 

Even Politico concedes that the process needs reform. Their suggestions seek to restore the formula used to elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Politico wants to be sure that ‘third party candidates’ will be heard. Ross Perot helped divide and destroy conservative votes in 1992 and 1996 through his participation in this more “fair process.” Politico’s recommendations betray a fundamental doubt about whether their candidate -- Hillary Clinton -- can prevail without the help of the kind of third-party diversion offered to her husband. But here again, in what public debate events does one see three sides instead of two?  It does not happen. But the media tells us what is fair and unfair in politics even if it breaks the norms of debate procedures. 

What should be done for the presidential debate process?

  1. For primary debates, utilize a round robin tournament format. Let candidates debate in a Lincoln/Douglas style of debating where each round lasts 45 minutes to one hour. Candidates have an opportunity to go head to head with each other major candidate -- whether six or ten. Candidates with higher number of wins would win the tournament. It would be possible to do what high school and college students do and have multiple tournaments during the year. In traditional debating, debaters win style points and a side decision. This means that the quality of argument could also be evaluated to rank top speakers for a field of primary candidates. A candidate with fewer wins might still have a better acknowledged style of argument. Additonal formats may be possible. James Madison University has pioneered a long table format that pairs six debaters on a side. Perhaps the primary field can be divided into two distinct camps on foreign or domestic policy. Those teams could debate in a long table format. At Coolidge and Bush institutes, we have utilized various formats for students to teach this essential aspect of civics.
  2. In all debates, eliminate moderators. Debates do not usually have moderators in the way the public has been conditioned to witness since 1960. The debate moderators draw attention to themselves, their agendas and their networks. One sees more publicity for the news networks on screen than the visible names of the candidates. Moderators consumed roughly ten percent of the speech times in Presidential debates 2012. A C-Span style nondescript video production of candidates debating in a strict time limit format is possible. The idea that candidates would not abide time limits fails to recognize how cameras and microphones can be turned off at the moment of time limits. Reduce camera angling and cut-away tricks to an absolute minimum. The Bush senior ‘watch look’ gotcha in 1992 at the town hall debate with Clinton stands as a monument to media shenanigans in orchestrating public opinion. There is no need for this. 
  3. Abolish the town hall debates. Introduced in 1992 as a reform, the academics pushing the style did and continue to believe the format helps ‘their’ candidate. Journalists ‘pick’ audience members to offer a question and journalists can follow up anyway they wish. The format is a farce that amplifies the media’s control of what a legitimate question is. This is not to say the media could not conduct such events among willing candidates. But these are not debates in any true sense. They are elaborated press conferences with rather contrived designs. 
  4. Allow debate professionals to control the conduct of the debates. Debate professionals can work off screen to make sure debates proceed correctly and that their designs are fairly implemented. In 2012, the Presidential Debate Commission concluded that no journalists from Fox News would be allowed to moderate debates. CNN, ABC, and PBS were deemed legitimate media voices. The political statement was indelible and obvious. 
  5. Preclude all interruptions. Neither applause, moderators, nor other online commentary should interfere with the arguments of the candidates. Increasingly, live twitter screen feeds seek to reframe debates as they happen turning “binders full of women” and “bayonets” into memes that can easily substitute for substantive argument. There is no need to accelerate that diminution of civic discourse in this format. Candidates cannot interrupt each other. Vice President Biden interrupted Paul Ryan 80 times during their roughly 80 minutes of debating. The lopsided interruptions by Obama and Biden incited Ryan and Romney to speak 25 words per minute faster in every debate to offset this practice. Interruptions can result in speaker point reductions, disqualification from a round of debate, and even disqualification from a primary tournament.
  6. Conduct the debates at Presidential libraries and sites. Presently, the opening bid for a Presidential debate in 2016 is two million dollars and the events take place on colleges and university campuses. The campuses are again profoundly biased toward one party. Having two Republican sites and two Democratic presidential sites would connect the event to history and underscore the principal of civic turn taking and fairness. 

Getting these debates right is essential. The public relies on these events to cut through the increasingly partisan channels of communication that make up the internet, social media, television, and film.  Moreover, the debates cut to the heart of an American global argument for free speech and civil society. If we cannot model free and fair debate to the world, how can we reasonably expect democracy and free societies to emerge anywhere? These debates must be the very best.  These debates can be dramatically improved for 2016 both in the primaries and the general election. 

Dr. Ben Voth is the director of Debate and associate professor of Communication at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is also an advisor for the Bush Institute and a fellow for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. His recent book The Rhetoric of Genocide, argues for the global importance of debate as a solution to human violence. Several research points of this essay are drawn from his chapter in Robert Denton’s The 2012 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective (Communication, Media, and Politics).

If you experience technical problems, please write to