The problem with presidential primary debates

Democracy stands out from other systems of government because it features collective deliberation. In an ideal democracy, policy decisions and representatives are only voted for after lengthy, healthy dialogue between members of the public. 

And yet, we do not live in an ideal democracy. We live in one where our process for debate is broken. Look no further than the presidential debates during election cycles. The 2020 election is upon us, and so far, four debates have been hosted among the crowded democratic field. 

If you tune in to one of them, they don’t feel like debates. In fact, the very way in which the public discusses these debates as they arrive is not with curiosity and Socratic interest. They’re going to cheer on their preferred candidate, as most primary voters have already picked who they’d like to face off in the general election. The remaining 19 candidates in the Democratic field are there to serve as entertainment, as everyone competes to rope one another into making a viral gaffe

For candidates, debates are not about persuading the public that they’re the best candidate. Instead, preparing for a presidential debate is more like preparing for a press conference. 

Speaking times for debates run just a few minutes per question, with each candidate only receiving a few chances to make the true depth of their views heard. Moreover, there is no incentive to engage with others on stage in any meaningful way. Since candidates have so few chances to shine, the likelihood they’ll use it to ask an interesting question or give a good-faith response to another candidate’s point of view is slim. 

So, what do candidates do instead? They use rehearsed, sound-bite worthy, populist battle cries to get cheers from the audience. If you listen closely, candidate responses sound an awful lot like talking points from one of their rallies. A great example is from a 2016 Republican primary debate in which Sen. Marco Rubio embarrassingly repeated the same response twice, a gaffe that former Gov. Chris Christie swiftly took advantage of. 

Worst of all, the two to three hours it takes to wrap up a debate almost never ends in a better understanding the comparative advantages of each candidate. I could get the same results by simply going to their campaign websites and browsing their social media posts. 

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Nonetheless, the orientation voters and candidates alike have towards debates is unhealthy for our democracy. Debates should look more like thoughtful presentations on policy and moral leadership, not WWE-like smackdowns where the sole purpose is to condescend and embarrass others. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. If UAA knows anything, it’s that there are ways to hold political debates in constructive ways to the benefit of both the candidates and the audience. Take, for instance, the gubernatorial debate hosted by the Seawolf Debate Program at the Wendy Williamson last year. A three-person debate for the governor’s office in Alaska isn’t the same as the race for president, but there are some lessons the national stage could take from UAA.

First, the debate is centered on one sole topic. No flashing loaded questions onto candidates at random, but a theme for the debate to revolve around. UAA’s debate focused on the PFD; primary debates could hold each debate on a prominent issue in politics. Imagine candidates having a full-length discussion around health in which candidates had to defend the full complexity of their stance, rather than a two-minute response on a few dozen questions. Think of a resolution such as “The United States adopt a single-payer health care system,” where candidates drill into the evidence behind a solution. This would encourage them to develop arguments, push candidates on their responses to particular problems or quirks and relay a better understanding of their intentions to the public. People focus and learn more when discussions have purpose; debates are no exception. 

Second, the moderator is not a media or political personality. Remember this: at the end of the day, large news corporations like Fox and CNN are focused on profit. If a channel is going to occupy a dozen hours of airtime for a few primary debates, they want viewers and attention. What better way to get that than asking low-ball, baity questions and pitting candidates against each other? 

The second set of Democratic debates this year perfectly embody the problem of media moderators. At multiple times during the first debate, moderators directly asked candidates to address an attack made on them by another candidate to try and get them to spar. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging candidates to engage with each other. However, there’s a difference between attempting to genuinely distinguish policy positions and philosophy and stirring the pot. The solution is simple: independent moderators without an incentive to conduct debates for the purpose of viewership. I’d rather less people watch debates if it means the people who tune in are actually learning and thinking. 

Finally, an added feature to be included — and perhaps the most important of all — is to lengthen speech times. Of course, you can’t do this with 20 candidates. There’s a couple ways you could play with the format to achieve parity. Debates could be sectioned off into three-to-four debates, with participating candidates teaming up to argue for or against the position. Again, debates around campus provide a good measure for how well this would facilitate depth. UAA’s Cabin Fever Debates throw four debaters onto each side of a topic and allow them to dive deep. 

This feature alone would dramatically improve the quality of debates. The central purpose of debate is to promote engagement. Right now, candidates are competing for limited time and attention in a filthy race to the bottom. We could do better by encouraging them to interact with each other and genuinely address the nuance these topics deserve.

Simply put, the American public deserves better debate. The best thing we can do as a democracy is to make changes to our shameful primary debate format that bring us together to learn and deliberate about our future. Instead of tuning in to political cage matches, let’s bring our primary debates out of the dark and into an era of enlightened discourse.