A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates and their Media Organizations

Lessons can be learned from this year’s primary debates and applied to enhance the value of the forthcoming US Presidential Debates, beginning on September 26th, 2016. The major lessons include the following:

  1. Moderators should aim to generate a debate between the candidates, and not move towards a series of interviews with the individual candidates. This was a problem with the primary ‘debates’. Ask questions that both candidates can respond to and debate.
  1. Put the candidates in the center of the discussion. It has been said that the moderator should not be the news coming out of the debate. The best moderator will be the one who can pose questions that will engage the candidates in an exchange among themselves and not a back and forth with the moderator.

    Kennedy and Nixon in Debate
  1. Voters depend on the debates for information about the candidates and their views on the issues. The issues are those of domestic and foreign policy, not what she said or he said about the other. By focusing on the issues, the moderators have an opportunity to make the debates more valuable to voters, and that will be the test of the quality of these debates, not how entertaining, smart, informed or combative the moderator might be. The moderators are not running for office.

CNN argued that moderation of NBC’s “Commander in Chief Forum” with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “exposed the many weaknesses of the moderator-driven format.” Actually, all of the primary debates, including those produced by CNN, proved this point quite dramatically. So, please set up a debate between the candidates rather than moderator-driven interviews.

The public can monitor whether the media organizations and their moderators follow this advice by critically viewing the debates on September 26, October 4 (Vice Presidential Candidates), October 9, and October 19.

Voting for Senator Bernie Sanders

There is nothing inevitable about Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party nomination and the 2016 Presidential election. He is not an heir to a political dynasty. He was supported by no more than 2 percent of the American voting public as recently as ten months ago. As I write, he remains behind Secretary Clinton in delegate counts.

However, he has risen in the polls, has won in the primary in seven states and counting, and is leading a growing movement anchored in the support of younger voters. Bernie Sanders is drawing support, primarily because he has a big idea – a critical perspective on what is wrong with American democratic governance.

He has put his finger on the undue influence of wealth on the conduct and outcome of elections. In line with other sophisticated analysts of our political system, such as Lawrence Lessig, he focuses our attention on the need for campaign finance reform, as one major means for addressing this problem.

This idea is central as it explains many other problems and issues. Rather than forming ad hoc, ‘whack a mole’ policy responses to a litany of issues, he has put his focus on a coherent explanation for why so many other issues are emerging.

That is why he continually brings debate back to this root explanation for many problems, even though it opens him up to superficial but false allegations of him being a single issue candidate. Not so. He has clear and compelling positions on all of the issues.

Is he too radical? Is he extreme in being a Democratic Socialist? No. Listen to him, and what he means by his philosophy. First, he wants free tuition for college students. Extreme? He argues that a college education today is equivalent to having a high school education in decades past. Public high school educations are tuition free in the United States, as they are funded by taxes, and he is simply extending this model to college – the new high school. This does not mean that high school education is not in need of greater support and reform. A quite funny refrain in England, is that you can get a good high school education in the US, but you have to go to college to get it. But that is another reason for extending public support to college, as is done in many countries across Europe, and not putting so many students in such great financial debt before they even begin their careers.

Is he too radical for calling for a greater redistribution of wealth? Nearly all taxes tend to be progressive and redistribute wealth. What he is saying is that the US has drifted into a period of sever income inequality, when the top one percent of households, about 1.4 million households, have benefitted far more in our economy than the bottom 99 percent. But its even worse. The top of the top one percent have benefitted dramatically more than the others among the one percent. Senator Sanders is arguing that the top one percent is not currently paying their fair share of taxes, and that they should. That is not extreme, or a radical idea. It is a progressive idea in the best sense of that word, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Is he inexperienced? No. Senator Sanders has held public offices for over thirty years. He is more experienced in holding an elected public office, as a Mayor, Representative, and then Senator, than any other candidate in either party that is running for president.

Finally, will he be fit as a Commander in Chief. As Senator Sanders argues, he has been on the right side of major decisions. He was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when this was not a popular position in the US. Judgement is perhaps the most important quality of a prospective commander in chief.

I don’t agree with every position Senator Sanders has taken on every issue. For example, I am more supportive of reducing trade barriers, and not erecting greater barriers to international trade, but his discussion of trade initiatives in tonight’s CNN Debate is leading me to reconsider my position. Bernie Sanders is clear-headed, thoughtful, and focused on central issues for strengthening our democratic system, primarily through campaign finance reform.

There is no more important issue that the vitality of our democracy, and the extreme inequalities in wealth emerging and its impact on campaign financing, because these trends threaten to undermine the vitality of our democracy. Given the issues arising over infrastructure, immigration, jobs, and more, we certainly need a healthy, functional and stable democratic system for discussing these conflicts, and making decisions. This is where Senator Sanders – his ideas, demeanor and experience – will have real payoffs.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

I attended his recent rally in East Lansing, Michigan, at Michigan State University. Two to three thousand were expected, but over ten thousand came to the rally. Being there and seeing the enthusiasm of such a diverse array of younger voters was one of the most encouraging political moments I’ve had in recent years. They see a promising vision for their future. They and we need a person with a vision of what needs to be done in the coming decades, not what can be done in the next few years. As others have found, you might well discover that Bernie is indeed the ‘real thing’.

Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU
Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU



Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes

Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes

The Democratic Party debates have raised questions on whether Hillary Clinton’s positions on policy issues changed as a consequence of speaking fees and donations to her campaigns. Politicians and media pundits alike remind us that they do not read social science research. The key focus of campaign financing and lobbying is access, not more direct and vulgar efforts to buy votes. So, rather than ask whether Secretary Clinton or other candidates changed their policy positions as a consequence of financial support, we should be looking at whom they communicate with. Who has access to them?

Shaping Access

Political influence is subtler than vote buying. Perhaps as the old adage says, everyone has their price. So hundreds of thousands of dollars might well influence some people. In the machine days, many voters cared less about whom they voted for, so they would gladly sell their vote for a turkey at Christmas or simply as a favor for a friend. But in most cases, effective lobbying of politicians is done through shaping a communication process, and money and donations tend to buy access to politicians, which in the long term shapes what they know and what they attend to among competing issues on their agenda.

In the 1950s, major interest group theories of political influence hypothesized direct effects of lobbying. Interest groups were perceived as simply giving money to politicians to win their support on key votes. This was sometimes called a billiard ball model of influence. The business or other stakeholder who lobbied most effectively would win the politician’s support. This proved to be naïve. hillary-<3s-trumps

Empirical research on lobbying by my late graduate school mentor, Lester Milbrath, and others, such as Anthony Dexter, tended to demonstrate that politicians seldom changed their positions as a consequence of lobbying. Instead, the implications and role of sophisticated lobbying efforts tended to focus on shaping the communication networks of the politicians. Support could get meetings, phone calls, dinners, and today, probably email exchanges with politicians. These provide opportunities to influence the politician’s understanding of the issues, and to identify the issues of most importance to their supporters.

Lester Milbrath
Lester Milbrath

So don’t look simply at whether a politician’s voting record demonstrates the receipt of financial support. That is the wrong place to look. Instead, look at the network of those who advise and explain the issues to them. To accomplish this, lobbyists need to develop a personal relationship with politicians, and money helps a great deal.

We’ve known this for decades but must continually remind ourselves that pundits ignore research.


Raymond A. Bauer, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter (1963), American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade, 1st Edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lester W. Milbrath, (1960), ‘Lobbying as a Communication Process, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(1): 32-53.

Lester W. Milbrath (1963), The Washington Lobbyists. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Coders For Sanders: Wonderful Focus on the Issues

Nick Corasaniti has written a great piece in The New York Times on how the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders is attracting tech-savvy volunteers, like Daniela Perdomo. She has helped create FeeltheBern.org.

For me, the most exciting aspect of the article is the front landing page of FeeltheBern.org – which provides a set of issues for users to click in order to see where Bernie Sanders stands on such issues as ‘civil rights’, ‘government regulation’, and a host of other controversies. My colleague and I have written about the first G.O.P. debate and about how and why the debate lacked a focus on the issues. Sites like FeeltheBern are a major step towards correcting that. The very fact that Bernie Sanders makes it easy for people to understand his views on what the issues are, and where he stands, speaks volumes for his credibility and promise as a candidate.

Now we need some tech-savvy volunteers to create sites that enable voters to compare the candidates on the issues of the 2016 Presidential campaign. Tracy Westen and I tried to sketch out some aspects of such a new approach to Presidential debates.

See: ‘Sanders Attacts Tech-Savvy Talent That Would Cost Anybody Else’: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/us/politics/bernie-sanders-presidential-campaign-tech-supporters.html?_r=0

Also Westen and Dutton: http://billdutton.me/2015/08/12/multimedia-convergence-a-new-approach-to-presidential-debates-by-tracy-westen-and-bill-dutton/