One clear message from yesterday’s election is that many voters—and many others who stayed home from the polls—were underwhelmed by the major-party candidates for president. Several factors conspired to deliver the Democratic and Republican nominations to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. One of those factors that sorely needs to be reformed before the next election cycle is the lousy format used for candidate debates.
Typically, candidates are given scarcely a minute or two to answer moderators’ questions about complex policy issues, and even less time to rebut an opponent or offer a response. Candidates aren’t given the debate questions ahead of time, and though they have some idea of what they might be asked, they can’t prepare and deliver careful, detailed responses. The candidates aren’t permitted notes or electronic devices, so they can’t quickly reaffirm facts or double-check complex arguments. And they can’t use visual aids to help explain their ideas or provide full references.
These limitations punish candidates who are thoughtful, have nuanced policy knowledge, offer innovative ideas, and who want to communicate with and persuade a broad, diverse audience. The limitations favor candidates with little knowledge or concern for facts, who spout standard ideologies, who play to partisan bases, and who are dishonest and incivil.
If the coordinators of the 2020 debates truly want to provide a public service, they will dispense with the current format and instead provide candidates an opportunity to show if they are informed, pensive, respectful leaders who can talk to Americans about sophisticated public policy. If, on the other hand, these coordinators continue using the same debate formats as 2016, we will likely have party nominees similar to 2016’s.