The disadvantages of modern presidential debates

My previous post summarized chapter 5 of Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate where authors Kathleen Jamieson and David Birdsell outline a number of advantages of  contemporary presidential debates. Chapter 6 outlines a number of serious disadvantages of the modern debate format:

  • “Debates suffer from compression” (pg. 163). Over the course of 90-120 minutes, candidates are expected to answer questions on more than a dozen different topics. This forces them to answer in anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This is not conducive to providing anything but superficial, “soundbite” answers to the various questions.
  • Through the question-and-answer format, with a moderator keeping strict track of time, it encourages candidates to avoid directly engaging with and responding to one another. Candidates are expected to “both engage each other and speak to the mass audience” (pg. 165). The current format encourages the latter but makes the former very difficult.
  • By having journalists ask the questions, there is a bias toward asking questions that journalists find interesting. This is a problem because “questions designed to elicit news do not invite the level of basic information on candidates positions and differences that the less educated viewer would find most useful” (pg. 169).
  • Post-debate media coverage focuses almost exclusively on the question of “who won” and how the debate will effect the candidates’ poll numbers and electoral prospects. Coverage of the candidates’ substantive answers to issue-based questions is largely minimalized.
  • When candidates provide “contradictory accounts” of events, acts, and political information, “nothing in the existing format provides a neutral voice able to tell the confused viewer which if either is accurate” (pg. 173). [There are, of course, independent fact-checker websites that do this, but their reports are published several hours, if not days, after the fact. By that time, most low-information voters have lost interest.]
  • While debates might help citizens get a glimpse of a candidate’s communication skills, “debates fail to elicit or provide a means of evaluating some of the skills central to conduct in office including an ability to ask significant questions, a talent for securing sound advice, a disposition to act judiciously, and a capacity to compromise without violating conscience or basic social principles” (pg. 181).
  • By focusing on candidate appearance, “those who are naturally telegenic have an advantage not related to their competence or command of the issues” (pg. 183).
  • Debates “reward some behaviors undesirable in a president.” These include “a willingness to offer solutions instantaneously, an ability to simplify complex problems … to make distinctions where only shades of difference exist and encourage simplifications that credit neither the candidates nor the audience” (pg. 191).

My next post will summarize Jamieson and Birdsell’s main point about presidential debates.

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