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How to Fix the Primary Debates

Presidential debates should be geared toward the needs of voters, not TV networks. Here are five ways to do that from Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

October 10, 2019
democratic debate
Scott Olson/Getty

DES MOINES — As he waited to speak at the annual Iowa Steak Fry, Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ate and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was chat­ting with a hand­ful of report­ers about the rigid party rules that had barred him from the debate stage in Septem­ber because of his near-invis­ible poll numbers. Gestur­ing towards the more than 10,000 Iowa Demo­crats whose idea of fun was listen­ing to polit­ical speeches on a rainy Saturday after­noon, Bullock said, “If you walked around here today and asked what came out of the debates, there would­n’t be a dang thing.”

Bullock’s complaint may have been self-serving, but he had ample evid­ence on his side. The late Septem­ber Iowa Poll, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and CNN, found that only 21 percent of likely caucus-goers (who are the most commit­ted Demo­crats in the state) had watched all three hours of the last debate. As Edward-Issac Dovere put it in a recent article in the Atlantic, “Pretty much every­one says they hate the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial debates. The candid­ates hate them. The campaigns hate them. The report­ers hate them.”

It is tempt­ing to blame things on the clot­ted 10-person (and soon to be 12-person) debates stages that have become the norm for the 2020 Demo­crats. But the issue is far larger than the spate of vanity candid­ates who regard a pres­id­en­tial campaign as a launch­ing pad for their ideas, their books, and their egos. The real prob­lem is the way that the Demo­cratic National Commit­tee (like the RNC in 2016) has ceded control of the debates to the tele­vi­sion networks. And, shock­ingly enough, the prior­ity for any network host­ing a debate is to invite contro­versy and goose ratings.

So even if there were only three or four candid­ates on a debate stage, the time for answers would still be short because TV cameras get twitchy. Typical 60– and 75-second answers do not allow a candid­ate to develop a thought or add nuance to an issue posi­tion with a personal anec­dote or detailed explan­a­tion. As a result, candid­ates often sound shrill as they struggle to boil down their ideas to a few provoc­at­ive sentences.

The debate ques­tions are invari­ably designed to create dramatic moments of conflict — a journ­al­istic sin that affects all aspects of campaign cover­age. Again and again, debate moder­at­ors have returned to the tired topic of whether private insur­ance would be allowed under the candid­ates’ health-care plans. The goal is not to exam­ine a policy shift, but rather to create a memor­able TV clip when, say, Eliza­beth Warren attacked Joe Biden for timid­ity on health care. (FYI: Warren hasn’t taken the bait).

Health care is a prime example of a complex issue ill-suited to sound-bite battles on a debate stage. As candid­ates recite famil­iar slogans, even health-care experts find it hard to keep up with the glib claims. Of course, no candid­ate has offered a coher­ent explan­a­tion of how far-reach­ing health-care legis­la­tion might win approval in a narrowly divided Senate.

Origin­ally, pres­id­en­tial debates were far more seri­ous than they are today. Few recall that there were no time limits for answers in the initial 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, just a gener­ous eight minutes for each open­ing state­ment.

But the first broad­cast debate pred­ated Kennedy-Nixon by 12 years. Two Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial candid­ates faced off in a Port­land radio studio before the Oregon primary. The 1948 debate was stag­ger­ingly old-fash­ioned. There was a formal topic, “Shall the Commun­ist Party of the United States be outlawed?”, and the open­ing argu­ments were 20 minutes each. Harold Stassen, still known as the Boy Governor of Minnesota, argued for banning the Commun­ist Party while New York Gov. Tom Dewey (soon to be immor­tal­ized in a legendary news­pa­per head­line) suppor­ted free speech.

Despite its clunky format and Cold War topic, the Oregon debate attrac­ted 40 million listen­ers along a national radio hookup in a coun­try with less than half the popu­la­tion of today. Contrast that with the Demo­cratic debate broad­cast in mid-Septem­ber on ABC and Univi­sion that drew an audi­ence of 14 million even though it featured snappy answers, space-age lecterns, and center-stage posi­tions for Biden and Warren.

In truth, primary debates may have perman­ently lost their luster as a way to help voters sort out a large field of candid­ates quest­ing for a pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion. A few quick memor­ies of Donald Trump’s venom and vitriol during the 2016 GOP primary debates should be evid­ence enough that the prob­lems are not limited to the 2020 Demo­crats.

But here are five struc­tural reforms (most of which would have to wait until 2024) that might help return a note of grav­ity to the over-produced panel shows that now pass as pres­id­en­tial primary debates:

The polit­ical parties should take over spon­sor­ship of the debates from the networks, much like the Commis­sion on Pres­id­en­tial Debates does with the general-elec­tion faceoffs. Under this system, the primary debates would be avail­able to every network that wishes to broad­cast them. And, given the hunger for polit­ical program­ming on cable news stations, it is likely that these party-sponsored debates would not be limited to C-SPAN.

Exper­i­ment with formats that allow the candid­ates to respond with longer answers, such as three-minute time limits. Hope­fully, the slower pace would allow candid­ates to reflect on their answers rather than rattling them off like an auction­eer trying to jack up the bidding.

Debates invari­ably center on what candid­ates plan to do rather than how they actu­ally would achieve their dreams. Instead of allow­ing candid­ates to continu­ally erect air castles, it would be a good idea to devote an entire debate to the ques­tions of govern­ing: How would candid­ates staff an admin­is­tra­tion? Deal with a balky Congress? Or struc­ture the White House?

Guar­an­tee a spot on the debate stage to any candid­ate who has won a statewide elec­tion in the past decade. The current DNC debate rules have already turned Bullock (the only governor in the race) and respec­ted Color­ado Sen. Michael Bennet into the equi­val­ents of un-candid­ates.

The recently announced criteria for the Novem­ber debate, a minimum of 3 percent support in national polls and 160,000 indi­vidual donors, might also jeop­ard­ize the place on the stage for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and former hous­ing and urban devel­op­ment secret­ary Julian Castro. The DNC’s rigid formu­las for inclu­sion are arbit­rar­ily winnow­ing the field long before the first Demo­crats in Iowa and New Hamp­shire get to vote.

One final reform that could be achieved imme­di­ately: Turn off the hype machine.

It is easy for campaign report­ers (and I have been guilty myself) to inflate the stakes for each debate and get too caught up in anoint­ing winners and losers. It is time to remem­ber that debates are just one vehicle for voters to choose a candid­ate in the pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. Maybe if we lowered expect­a­tions, we could return a note of seri­ous­ness to the entire process.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.