A New Format for Presidential Debates

 

I posted a draft of this on Ricochet three years ago. This version appeared in American Thinker. I’m posting it again because it’s still pertinent.

There has been widespread dissatisfaction with previous presidential debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates. In 2012, Candy Crowley stated shortly before the second debate that she would not abide by the contract she signed. She then interfered in the debate on the side of Obama. In 2008, the vice presidential debate moderator, Gwen Ifill, was completing a biography of Obama. One can easily surmise that financial considerations alone gave her a bias favoring Joe Biden. Clearly, her book had the potential to sell more copies if Obama won the presidency. One may ask why the Republicans didn’t insist that these biased moderators be removed. This tacit agreement to participate in a process that was biased against them may partially explain why they lost both races.

How can you solve the problem of biased moderators? I suggest eliminating them and using the model of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. There were seven debates, one in each congressional district, each of which was three hours long. The first debater spoke for 60 minutes, the second spoke for 90 minutes, and the first responded for 30 minutes. Today’s Americans don’t have the attention span for an unstructured three-hour debate. I suggest that the candidates cover specific questions in fifteen-minute segments. A coin toss determines which debater speaks first for five minutes. The second debater then speaks for 7.5 minutes, and the first speaker responds for 2.5 minutes. There is a timer in place of the moderator. This allows for more time for speakers to talk without interruptions while also allowing them to challenge each other. In contrast to the behavior of Candy Crowley in the second debate, Jim Lehrer in the first debate asked general questions and let the candidates talk. My proposal codifies this by eliminating the moderators and putting the focus on the questions.

How are the questions determined? One possibility is to have a liberal and a conservative scholar each selecting half of them. Victor Davis Hanson would be a good choice for the conservative scholar. Another alternative would be to have each campaign select 25% of the questions, with the scholars picking the remainder. All of the questions would be known in advance to the public. The only unknown in advance of the actual debate is who speaks first on a question. This alternative is fair to both sides and removes the media from the debates.

The fall debates have recently been of two hours’ duration, including about twenty minutes of commercials. Using my proposed fifteen-minute segments, this would allow for six questions in a debate with ten minutes for closing statements. Recently, there has been both an opening and closing statement, but I suggest eliminating the opening segment to allow for more questions.

My unbiased proposal allows voters to understand better how the candidates think about issues than under the current process. It will be difficult to stall for 7.5 minutes. It will challenge candidates to speak intelligently for that duration and the debates will be improved.

How would this change be implemented? Currently, the Commission on Presidential Debates organizes them. One possibility would be to petition the members of the commission to make this change. Another alternative would be to bring this to the attention of the leading Republican candidates. Removing the press from the process eliminates the possibility for bias to affect the result. If the Democrats refuse to consider this change, the Republican candidate could refuse to participate in the debate. There is no reason to give one side an advantage in shaping public opinion.

Published in Elections
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There are 16 comments.

  1. Vance Richards Member

    No questions from moderators. Just have sections for different areas such as foreign policy, immigration, economy, etc: Each candidate gets x minutes to make a statement then another few minutes for rebuttal. These are debates, not interviews. Moderator should just be a time keeper. 

    • #1
    • May 21, 2019, at 11:07 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  2. Mark Camp Member

    Richard Easton: Today’s Americans don’t have the attention span for an unstructured three-hour debate.

    Of course they do! 

    Oh, sure, there are exceptions. But rather than abandon a historically proven method of testing the candidates, wouldn’t it be more sensible simply to exclude from the voting rolls those whose mental capacities don’t clear this hurdle?

    • #2
    • May 21, 2019, at 11:11 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Mark Camp Member

    This format seems ok to me.

    But to be honest, I don’t see any possibility of coming up with a useful change in the design. The Presidential debates in the modern era do have an impact on the election. But this impact produces as much benefit to the democratic process as we’d get by holding a mud wrestling tournament, and asking the spectators to vote for a President. Any proposal to change the rules to make the show less lurid, and a better test of suitability for the job, would be hooted down by the crowd.

    • #3
    • May 21, 2019, at 11:33 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Richard Easton: Today’s Americans don’t have the attention span for an unstructured three-hour debate.

    Of course they do!

    Oh, sure, there are exceptions. But rather than abandon a historically proven method of testing the candidates, wouldn’t it be more sensible simply to exclude from the voting rolls those whose mental capacities don’t clear this hurdle?

    If it was structured like the Lincoln Douglas debates, we’d get to hear Joe Biden speak uninterrupted for 60 or 90 minutes. Please shoot me first.

    • #4
    • May 21, 2019, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  5. Mark Camp Member

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Richard Easton: Today’s Americans don’t have the attention span for an unstructured three-hour debate.

    Of course they do!

    Oh, sure, there are exceptions. But rather than abandon a historically proven method of testing the candidates, wouldn’t it be more sensible simply to exclude from the voting rolls those whose mental capacities don’t clear this hurdle?

    If it was structured like the Lincoln Douglas debates, we’d get to hear Joe Biden speak uninterrupted for 60 or 90 minutes. Please shoot me first.

    I see your point. I was only thinking about the spectators.

    Without violating anyone’s right to free speech, would there be some way we could also exclude people from the podium who lack the emotional maturity and intelligence to be placed in supervisory position, or one where they could be of danger to others?

    • #5
    • May 21, 2019, at 12:08 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. Mark Camp Member

    It’s a serious proposal and a good one. I should not be making light of it.

    In fact I’m motivated not by a desire to be funny, or to sidetrack serious debate of your idea. Rather I am so disgusted by the spectacle of the debates that I’ve let it get the better of me, sorry.

    • #6
    • May 21, 2019, at 12:15 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. namlliT noD Member

    Richard Easton: How can you solve the problem of biased moderators?

    I don’t want to swerve off topic, but…

    The real problem with the biased moderators was that neither McCain nor Romney had the cajones to do anything about it.

    And also why both lost their elections.

    • #7
    • May 21, 2019, at 12:17 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  8. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Well, I’m not The Federalist, and I don’t have quite the visibility, but I would be happy to publish your idea over at RushBabe49.com. I think you have it right, and I’d like to see it happen.

    • #8
    • May 21, 2019, at 12:55 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Mark Camp Member

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Richard Easton: How can you solve the problem of biased moderators?

    I don’t want to swerve off topic, but…

    The real problem with the biased moderators was that neither McCain nor Romney had the cajones to do anything about it.

    And also why both lost their elections.

    I would like to introduce this as hard evidence for my argument above, that it is futile to try to make it

    • less of a mud-wrestling show, or a less lurid one, and
    • more of a serious debate to help a population of self-governing citizens make an informed vote between candidates claiming to have the ability to govern a constitutional Republic.

    We fans would hate it. Get these amateurs out of there and put in someone who can do a good staged groin kick.

    • #9
    • May 21, 2019, at 1:21 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Well, I’m not The Federalist, and I don’t have quite the visibility, but I would be happy to publish your idea over at RushBabe49.com. I think you have it right, and I’d like to see it happen.

    I’d be pleased if you’d repost it. If Mollie or Tucker would pick it up, we might see the GOP take action (a guy can dream).

    • #10
    • May 21, 2019, at 1:22 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. I Walton Member

    Clearly we need major reform to the process. Your’s is a good one as it focuses on many of the weaknesses. I like VDH as questioner, most TV journalists lack insight and lack depth for good follow on questions, especially on matters not recent news. VDH can simplify but has the kind of understanding and breadth of perspective to really make it interesting. The Democrats must have someone who actually has that kind of perspective. The process gives a leg up to a sitting President the former VP, and plugged in Senators, so maybe they’d support it to help clear the field early.

     

    • #11
    • May 21, 2019, at 1:50 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Michael Collins Member

    How about a “chess clock” debate? Each speaker has a total of one hour to speak. Candidates can make their statements as long or as short as they like, but the total length of all their statements may not exceed one hour. No moderators and no preset questions. Each candidate simply makes the case for why they should be president. 

    • #12
    • May 23, 2019, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Re-posted over at RushBabe49.com.

    • #13
    • May 23, 2019, at 8:30 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Mark Camp Member

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    How about a “chess clock” debate? Each speaker has a total of one hour to speak. Candidates can make their statements as long or as short as they like, but the total length of all their statements may not exceed one hour. No moderators and no preset questions. Each candidate simply makes the case for why they should be president.

    Interesting!

    It took me a day to realize why it would work.

    It is the idea of a self-organizing system.

    You would think someone who had learned a little bit of basic economics (me) would see the possibility of other successful applications of

    • a self-organizing system…
    • …composed of purely self-interested parts…
    • …the knowledge of each being only
      • of the present moment (how much time do I have left, and how much does he, and what is the present tactical state of the battle at the moment that he flips the clock over to me?)
      • what he wants to say

    but until just now my mind fought against the idea. Obviously, I thought, external discipline must be imposed, in spite of the facts that

    • the authorities themselves always tend to turn out to be interested parties, and
    • the authorities lack the information needed to allocate topics, time, and the point-counterpoint sequence of events.

    These limitations of central planning–poor quality incentives, and lack of data–are precisely why it fails, in the case of political economy.

    You’ve invented the idea of free economy, transposed to the domain of a candidates’ debate.

    The creation of value for the public by the process is optimally determined by the self-interest of the two candidates. Even a well-intentioned designer of the sequence cannot possibly know in advance who should talk when, because it will be determined by the state of events that actually occurs. A candidate knows, when he is given the floor, whether he would present his case for himself better by rebutting or by introducing a new topic, and how much time he should best use up. Until that moment, he himself doesn’t know. Time is scarce–he has to invest it optimally in order to show his best attributes and his opponents worst, or more precisely, the marginal benefit to the voters of choosing him.

    • #14
    • May 24, 2019, at 6:10 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Michael Collins Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Mark Camp

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    How about a “chess clock” debate? Each speaker has a total of one hour to speak. Candidates can make their statements as long or as short as they like, but the total length of all their statements may not exceed one hour. No moderators and no preset questions. Each candidate simply makes the case for why they should be president.

    Interesting!

    It took me a day to realize why it would work.

    It is the idea of a self-organizing system.

    You would think someone who had learned a little bit of basic economics (me) would see the possibility of other successful applications of

    • a self-organizing system…
    • …composed of purely self-interested parts…
    • …the knowledge of each being only
      • of the present moment (how much time do I have left, and how much does he, and what is the present tactical state of the battle at the moment that he flips the clock over to me?)
      • what he wants to say

    but until just now my mind fought against the idea. Obviously, I thought, external discipline must be imposed, in spite of the facts that

    • the authorities themselves always tend to turn out to be interested parties, and
    • the authorities lack the information needed to allocate topics, time, and the point-counterpoint sequence of events.

    These limitations of central planning–poor quality incentives, and lack of data–are precisely why it fails, in the case of political economy.

    You’ve invented the idea of free economy, transposed to the domain of a candidates’ debate.

    The creation of value for the public by the process is optimally determined by the self-interest of the two candidates. Even a well-intentioned designer of the sequence cannot possibly know in advance who should talk when, because it will be determined by the state of events that actually occurs. A candidate knows, when he is given the floor, whether he would present his case for himself better by rebutting or by introducing a new topic, and how much time he should best use up. Until that moment, he himself doesn’t know. Time is scarce–he has to invest it optimally in order to show his best attributes and his opponents worst, or more precisely, the marginal benefit to the voters of choosing him.

    You took the words right out of my mouth!

    Actually, I got the idea by reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Of course their format was more rigid (first speaker has one hour, his opponent an hour and a half, then the first speaker again has a half hour). But it occurred to me that we now have a piece of technology that wasn’t available at that time. The chess clock was invented over a century ago to remedy the problem of competitors relying on superior “zetsfleisch” rather than tactical brilliance to wear down their opponents. But the same technology would be perfect for a political debate!

    • #15
    • May 25, 2019, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Michael Collins Member

    Mark, your analysis is elegant. A few additional thoughts. First advantage: It gets the media out of the debate. Conservatives could argue with their opponents, instead of fighting a combination of their opponents plus the “moderators”. Second advantage: It would make the debates more interesting. A flaw in my suggestion is that it limits debate to two hours. Why not a three hour debate, with time evenly split between opponents? The “back and forth” commenting would be far more interesting and educational for the voters, making the audience more likely to stick around. A Joe Biden who talked non-stop for one hour would bore his own audience, while handing his opponent a free hour to be used in smaller slices. Whom do you think would retain the audience? Self interest would make candidates limit their remarks, causing the debate to be more lively and varied. Third advantage: It would get the media out of the debates. Instead of having a few minutes of time to discuss questions selected by Democrats before quickly moving on to other questions selected by Democrats we could discuss a smaller number of questions in greater depth. Conservative arguments are more complex than leftist arguments, making this a real plus for our side. I am reminded of William F. Buckley being asked by a TV reporter to explain his position on rent control while running for mayor of New York. “You have thirty seconds” he was told. Buckley replied frostily, “In thirty seconds I cannot explain my position on rent control”. Fourth advantage: It would allow conservatives to introduce our own topics, meaning we could gain the initiative. Fifth advantage: Did I mention it would get the media out of the debates?

    For those who don’t play chess, here is a quick explanation of how a chess clock works. A chess clock is actually two clocks in a single device with two buttons on top. While a player is thinking his clock is ticking away. When he completes his move he pushes his button, stopping his clock and starting his opponents clock. Then the opponent makes a move and presses her button to stop her clock, etc. I am not sure about current tournament regulations, but a few years ago, if I remember correctly, each player had one hour to complete forty moves. You could think about one move for forty-five minutes if you liked, but then you had to complete the remaining thirty-nine moves in fifteen minutes. If you ran out of time before completing all forty moves, you lost. If both players completed their forty moves in one hour, they then had a second hour to complete the next forty moves. Choosing how much time to spend thinking about a particular move is part of the strategy in chess, as it would be for the debaters.

    • #16
    • May 25, 2019, at 9:53 AM PDT
    • Like