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Is there a way to make presidential debates more than shouting matches?

Chris Graham
joe biden donald trump
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A non-profit by the name of the Open to Debate Foundation got in touch this morning to lay out what is done wrong in presidential debates, in advance of this Thursday’s debate between President Joe Biden and the guy he beat by 7 million votes in 2020, Donald Trump.

I’ll give the folks there credit for not just getting to, presidential debates are utterly worthless, and calling it an early day, using the it’s 5 o’clock somewhere rule.

No, the OTDF folks spent way too much time watching every presidential debate that took place between 2004 and 2020 multiple times, the way your favorite football coach has somebody on his staff watch game tape, over and over and over, looking for what the other guys do right, and where the vulnerabilities are.

“Open, constructive debate is the keystone of a functioning democracy, and no debates in America are more visible, or consequential than those that take place between presidential candidates,” the group wrote on its website, in a preface to its report, “Discourse Correction: What’s Wrong with the Presidential Debates, and How to Fix Them.”

“These campaign contests not only help to form voters’ understanding of the candidates’ platforms and personalities, they also shape the wider terms of political discourse around the election. But how well does the format really work?”

The report from the Open to Debate Foundation errs on the side of being what your high-school civics teacher would want you to believe should be happening in public discourse – you know, candidates presenting their thoughts on the issues of the day, identifying the problems that ail us as a nation, and telling us how they would work with Congress, the executive branch and the courts to come up with solutions.

That’s how it should work; problem is, political discourse has never been about that, dating back to the Founding Fathers, their predecessors in the British Parliament, back to the Magna Charta, all the way back to the times of emperors and religious councils.

The results from the OTDF study, “as you will see, were disappointing,” the group reported.

To wit, the study reveals a significant decline in the ability of moderators to control debates. Moderators went from losing control just once in 2004 to 58 times in 2020.

Interruptions on the presidential debate stage were rare – so rare that there was only one across all three 2004 debates. But fast forward to 2020, and there were 76 instances in one debate alone

There were only six personal attacks recorded in presidential debates before 2016. But between 2016 and 2020, there were more than 60 personal attacks between both sides.

Instances of crosstalk have also increased substantially, from one instance in the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry debate to 76 instances in the first Biden vs. Trump debate in 2020.

“Over time, the presidential debates have grown less edifying and more confrontational. Moderators have increasingly struggled to run contests that are substantive and respectful,” OTFD tells us.

I’m inclined to say, well, duh, but the Open to Debate people are sincere about this.

Without further editorial comment, here are the group’s recommendations:

Change Moderator Preparation Standards

  • Moderators need to be trained and prepared to enforce rules and given more tools to control candidates.
  • Formal debate moderation requires a different set of skills than broadcast journalism.

Empower Moderators

  • In a debate, active listening and precision point/counterpoint arguments are fundamental to successful engagement. Moderators are not there to fact check the content but to enforce the rules.
  • Moderators should not tolerate deflection or evasion (when a candidate doesn’t answer the question asked) or repetitive talking points.
  • Moderators must ensure the arguments made by each candidate are addressed by the other consistently.

Change Debate Formats

  • The debates need to be restructured with expert oversight to navigate complex arguments, hold both sides accountable for their claims, and frame each question fairly for both sides.
  • Expertise in framing questions according to formal debate best practices should be used; not television broadcast standards which are designed for rapid fire, short segments.
  • The contemporary Oxford-style format, which poses a question that candidates answer “yes” or “no” to, will create more structure and present more facts with uninterrupted opening remarks and cross-examination of arguments.
  • Clearly defined, segmented topics elicit more specific responses from candidates and better inform voters.
  • Provide debate questions ahead of time, allowing candidates to prepare with specificity
  • Use survey tools to curate questions from voters. The Town Hall formats yielded better diversity of topics and covered what matters to Americans, not what drives ratings in the newsroom.

Implement Concrete Rules

  • Microphones should automatically turn off when a candidate is over time, and should not be live to enable interruptions during speech times.
  • Personal attacks and interruptions should result in a penalty that removes time from the candidate’s clock and gives it to the opponent.

The hard part here: getting both sides, particularly that one side, to agree to anything that limits personal attacks, crosstalk and outright bullying.

That said, worth a shot.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].