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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.