“Viewership of the debates has waned since the first debates were televised in the 1960s. Even when we allow for the increase in viewing choice today compared to 50 years ago, a steady trend of increasing public apathy is clear.”
The Presidential debates are failing to inspire or inform, resulting in dropping viewership and a disengaged electorate. The question is, how do we fix that? Anyone who tuned into the second presidential debate would be hard-pressed to refer to it as a debate in anything but name. Viewership of the debates has waned since the first debates were televised in the 1960s. Even when we allow for the increase in viewing choice today compared to 50 years ago, a steady trend of increasing public apathy is clear.
The Clinton-Trump debates have been an outlier in this trend, but in general this election cycle as a whole can be considered a blip. Why has the electorate lost interest? Where are the debates failing the US electorate, and how could they be improved? I want to look at some solutions put forward by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre who recently released a report with recommendations for reform of the debates.
As it stands, the format of the debates is one of the key issues, as seen in the most recent debate. We see candidates sniping, using one liners (“trumped-up trickle-down economics”, anyone?) and Blue Peter style “here’s one I made earlier” mini-speeches. The older debates saw more time given for answers, whereas today’s strictly moderated debates produce shorter answers that reward rhetoric rather than well explained policy statements. The previous model saw about two and a half minutes for opening statements, but today candidates are given only two minutes. Rebuttal was optional then, compared to the five minutes of open discussion now. To finish each topic, three minutes were given to closing remarks which is no longer the case. Long statements mean candidates appear to waffle while short quips give the impression of a lack of knowledge.
One clever solution is to create a chess-clock model. In this model each candidate is given an allotted time of 45 minutes for the debate and, anytime the candidate begins speaking, their time starts counting down. When their opponent wants to contribute they can hit the chess clock and begin speaking. No answer or rebuttal should exceed three minutes and if they run out of time that’s the end for their debate. Any additional time at the end of the debate can be used for a closing statement. This allows candidates to focus on what they want to talk about and incentivises clear and concise answers and rebuttal rather than throwaway jabs.
The inclusion of the audience is also a significant problem with debates. Think about the canned laughter tracks present in sitcoms; they cue the watching audience at home to laugh. It’s easier to make someone laugh when other people are laughing already because humans are rather susceptible to herd mentality. In 1984 Ronald Reagan famously took advantage of his opponent’s remarks about his age, with the audience’s reaction including prolonged laughter and applause to Reagan’s witty response.
The graph below shows public reaction to a debate when an audience is present. Here we see a marked difference when we remove the audience’s reaction from the clip. Moderators have struggled to keep audiences quiet in the past and it is inequitable to have audiences influencing perceptions of candidates. The Republican primaries make Trump look more ridiculous than usual when there isn’t an audience reacting to his remarks about tiny hands. By removing the audience, voters are allowed to better make up their minds on the debate, the candidates, and their policies.
Finally, let us consider the moderators. The biggest criticisms of them are that they lose control of the debate (33% of voting groups think so), play favourites (41%), pose the wrong questions (29%), and inject themselves into the debate process (30%). Further to this, in recent years the moderator has been a journalist who, questionably, acts as both reporter and moderator, thus having an incentive to generate headlines, not just good debates. Creating a wider pool from which to draw questions for the candidates would be a good start. The town-hall format, though chaotic, generally draws more attention than the static, fixed positions we see when one moderator is asking all the questions. By allowing more questions from the audience, we allow for a wider level of meaningful audience participation, as opposed to heckling or laughing in the background. Furthermore, journalists tend to ask questions that assume a high degree of knowledge of current affairs.
“Neither debate this year has really had an impact or taught us anything we didn’t already know about the candidates. Clinton remains the cold and calculating politician we expect and Trump is the misogynistic, hot-headed bully that we have seen for the past year.”
A move away from journalist moderators is also recommended by the Annenberg Public Policy Report. They suggest that a list should be drawn up from “persons of stature”, such as retired judges, historians, university presidents and others with demonstrable credibility. They would be more likely to ask questions and guide candidates to answer them in a way that the average viewer would gain more from. Currently the system lacks transparency in the selection process, and reform here would probably reduce a lot of the criticisms we see today, particularly with regard to bias.
Looking at the data, we see a need for reform of the system. The report I have referred to gives clear solutions, is bipartisan, and could really change the way debates play out. As it stands, the electorate isn’t getting what it needs out of the debates. The entertainment value may be high but the actual information we garner from them is quite low. Neither debate this year has really had an impact or taught us anything we didn’t already know about the candidates. Clinton remains the cold and calculating politician we expect, and Trump is the misogynistic, hot-headed bully that we have seen for the past year. Bar a catastrophic implosion, debates rarely make a difference. Hopefully with reform we can see an increase in viewership, and with that, an increase in the impact that these debates have.