What’s the best format for political debates?

REUTERS/Mike Blake
The stage prior to the Democratic presidential candidate debate at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

If it weren’t for the startling audience for the first two Republican Presidential debates, the Democrats would be unconditionally thrilled with the 15.3 million people who tuned in for their first face-­off this past Tuesday night in Las Vegas.

As it is, lacking Donald Trump, or a Kardashian suddenly throwing their hat in the ring, Democrats still have every right to be pleased. For whatever the reason, that 15.3 million was the largest audience ever for one of their intra-­party debates, doubling the previous record for a cable-­hosted affair. (Heck, it drew a bigger audience than “The Walking Dead.” Insert zombie joke here.)

So maybe now isn’t the time to ask the perennial questions about “the best” formats for assessing the talent and qualifications of future leaders? Kind of like kids reading comic books, at least citizens (who knows if they’re voters?) are watching something related to the democratic process. With a little deft encouragement, in time they may graduate up to serious adult stuff.

Complaints about public debates and forums generally revolve around the highest-­profile races. Contests with “sizzle” are by their nature media events, with an emphasis on television or video of some kind. Since the TV genie/demon is not going back in the bottle, conversations over how best to handle these events — guaranteeing interaction that is both fair and revealing of candidates’ character and intellectual chops — tend to revolve around the process: how debates are formatted; how candidates are allowed to respond to questioning from moderators and opponents; and whether there was enough time for follow­ups to vague and deflective answers.

For several generations, the League of Women Voters was the best-­known and most trusted host of candidate forums. Susan Tucker, the current executive director of the League here in Minnesota, is well aware of the evolution in both public and campaign thinking when it comes to format. 

The traditional style, “pretty contained and silo-ed,” she admits, with very little direct interaction between candidates, is rapidly falling out of favor. Generally speaking, both audiences and campaigns, she says, are interested in looser debate rules allowing more conversational “back and forth” between candidates.

Fundamentally, the objective is to engage the electorate. As technology and the public’s tastes change, you have to adapt. Like it or not, there is an entertainment component at work here. The dilemma, of course, is the impact an out­sized personality (can you say Donald Trump?) can have in a complete free for all. A huge audience may tune in, but what are they taking away?

Says Tucker: “The Democrats seem to have taken the opportunity to set a different tone with their debate. But CNN didn’t have the problem organizers of the Republican debates have had with so many candidates trying to make an impression simultaneously. In a situation like that, the power of one very large personality can have disproportionate impact.”

She emphasizes the importance of an effective moderator, and for the most part critics have been kind to the majority of the journalists wrangling the three presidential events to date. Most have been lauded for asking tough, direct questions and demanding answers, as best they could. 

But are there better formats that have rarely if ever been tested? 

One example is an almost completely unmoderated “conversation” between candidates. Al Franken and Norm Coleman engaged in something like this in 2008, with their one-on-one free-­for-­all continuing right through commercial breaks.

Another is what might be called the Doctoral Thesis Defense format, in which candidates present themselves before a panel of bona fide experts on a given topic — economics, foreign policy, science ­­— and have an opportunity to demonstrate mastery or woeful ignorance on matters of vital interest.

That one hasn’t been given much of a test.

WCCO-­TV’s Pat Kessler has moderated his share of debates and forums. “I’ve found the debates this year really interesting. Both entertaining and ​interesting. Every year these things evolve, and that’s a good thing. I mean, 20 years ago it was considered shocking if one candidate asked another candidate a question directly.”

Like so many legacy non­profits, The League Of Women Voters finds itself in an era of diminished membership and income. (Tucker says current statewide membership is 1,600 in 33 local chapters.) One facet of her push to regain lost relevancy, and attract new foundation funding, is broadening the League’s interaction with minority communities and activist groups, like Black Lives Matter, to cite one example. With this comes an appeal for video, the medium contemporary voters respond to most when assessing candidates.

(Tucker emphasizes that the League is acutely concerned with offering all candidates the opportunity to share a debate stage, regardless of format, and acknowledges the difficulty some races present. “The League is a terrific organization,” says Kessler. “I have nothing but admiration for what they’re doing. They’re serious and integrity ­driven. But when you get something like the last Minneapolis mayoral race, with 35 candidates, what do you do with Captain Jack Sparrow?”)

Tucker would like to aggregate amateur and professional video from forums, debates and candidate interviews from all over the state on the League’s website. Some via YouTube are already there.

One particularly interesting source of serious and thoughtful candidate questioning are the meetings newspapers have with politicians seeking endorsements. More like the Doctoral Thesis Defense than any other format, candidates present themselves to a room full of a paper’s executives and staffers and engage in a more or less free form conversation, an interaction that would be of unique value to every possible voter, especially the avidly interested — if the papers would make videotaping a criteria for seeking their endorsement, which the Strib for one presently does not. 

“We haven’t done that since I’ve been here,” says Doug Tice of the Strib’s opinion page. “Putting it on camera I think changes the dialogue. It makes it harder to engage. I think everyone recognizes the potential for something, some piece of video to go viral. There was the candidate down in Kentucky [Alison Lundergan Grimes] who was taped at a paper and wouldn’t say if she had voted for Obama. Remember that one?”

And then there was Herman Cain at the Milwaukee Journal­ Sentinel.

“It is I suppose a bit like the cameras in the courtroom debate,” said Tice. “There are good arguments on each side. But we haven’t had a discussion about whether we’ll videotape interviews next year. We do of course make audio recordings for our own use.”

Tucker says the League would be delighted to put the Strib’s candidate interviews up on their site if the paper changes its policy. Given the informal, conversational format — a chat over coffee — the newspaper inquisition may be more digestible and relatable to the average citizen than a rule-bound, behind-­the-­lectern format.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Michael Zalar on 10/17/2015 - 12:55 am.

    Lincoln Douglas

    To add historical context, the Lincoln/Douglas debates were formated so that the first speaker was allowed to speak for 60 minutes, the second for 90 minutes, and the first for an additional 30 minutes.
    This allowed each side to have plenty of time to put forth their full thoughts on an issue and to respond fully to any attacks. While the crowds were quite large for the debates, the information was most widely disseminated through newspapers, which would often publish the full text of both speakers.
    Current debate formats are presented for television and radio, and are not for the thoughtful reader, who is able to spend time considering the points being made, but almost more set up to be entertaining – the best or loudest entertainer wins the victory, not the most thoughtful one.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/17/2015 - 11:43 am.

    High school forensics

    would be a good model, following the structure of a formal debate.
    That is, with a topic chosen by the debate organizers, not the debaters, and scoring based on how that topic was addressed.
    What we have now is not a debate, it’s an open political forum with candidates free to ignore points made by their opponents or specified by the debate organizers and simply deliver canned political speeches. Trump is an expert at this; he’s got the biggest can around.

  3. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/18/2015 - 09:16 am.

    The main thing

    Is that the debate be conducted in front of a large piece of military hardware. That’s why I’m voting Republican this time.

    Just kidding, of course.

    The format should: (a) provide for the spontaneity that will not allow candidates simply to regurgitate their canned talking points; and (b) concern matters of importance for our society. The latter suggests, foremost, that members of the media shouldn’t moderate since they are capable of asking about only the petty and the salacious. While the notion about candidates being judged by a panel of experts may not be quite right, it may make sense to orient each debate around a subject and for experts to do the questioning.

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