Modern presidential debates: a summary

My last two posts summarized the advantages and disadvantages of the modern presidential debate format, as found in chapters 5 and 6 of Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate by Kathleen Jamieson and David Birdsell. Ultimately, they weigh the arguments and conclude that presidential debates are indeed a good thing for American democracy. They propose, though, that debates could be much improved by:

  • Down-sizing the role of the moderator. Instead of asking the questions, the moderator should only make sure that the candidates are sticking to an agreed-upon topic.
  • Expand opening statements to 8 minutes and allow 4-6 minute responses. Allow the candidates to question each other and have time to elaborate on a single topic.
  • Limit the number of topics to 1-2 per debate, so that a substantive exchange can take place.
  • Permit the use of visual aids. (For example, many Americans still don’t know where Afghanistan is… a map would be helpful in cases like this.)
  • Have a separate debate that’s purely a two-way conversation between the two candidates on a given topic. 

Their bottom line is that presidential “debates” aren’t really “debates” any more in any traditional understanding of the word. Rather, modern presidential debates have become “joint press conferences” (pg. 6). Each candidate answers questions from a reporter in a short, snappy answer, but there is little to no substantive engagement between the them.

As I’ve written before, presidential debates inform and help educate the American electorate as to the policy stances of each candidate (good thing), but they rarely change minds, nor do they ultimately exert a significant effect on the ultimate outcome of a presidential election.

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