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:
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.
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.
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.
Remember when everyone was complaining about voters having no real substantive choice among candidates for office? We were faced with a problem of deciding between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two characters from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871). I’ll post John Tenniel’s illustration. No one could tell them apart and they became a common refrain of those complaining about how all politicians moved toward similar positions to appeal to the most voters.
These days seem to be gone, at least for now. The differences among the GOP Candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination are ‘huge’, to quote Donald Trump, and the differences between the Republicans and Democrats, even more so. Of course, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton are also very different in personality, career paths, and policy positions. Across Europe, you can see the same pattern, with populist canidates from the left and right emerging as serious contenders for seats, such as between Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen in the 2015 regional elections.
Many are worried about the rise of populist candidates, such as Donald Trump, but isn’t this what we asked for in complaining about lookalike candidates? If we trust democratic processes, might we assume this will begin to engage more people into learning about the candidates and voting in elections? Do we trust democracy?
Perhaps the viewing records for the US primary debates are symptomatic of greater voter engagement. And this makes the debates and all other aspects of the electoral process ever more critical to the future of governance in the United States and abroad. May the debates focus on generating real debates among the candidates, and not a set of serial interviews and gotcha moments, as I and Tracy Westen have been discussing in previous blogs, such as in our low grading of the Fox News-Facebook debate.
CNBC was the object of heated criticism of the way in which their GOP primary debate was moderated. During and after the debate, moderators were ridiculed for asking ‘gotcha’ questions and not focusing on the issues. CNN presenters suggested that such criticism was unfair, since the CNN and Fox News orchestrated debates had asked similar questions. Indeed, all three media enterprises suffered from very similar problems in the way the debates were managed and moderated. [For instance, see my blog with Tracy Westen, grading of the first Fox News debate.]
The central problem was a focus on questions that might be okay in an interview for television, but not for a debate. Rather than asking questions that enabled the candidates to debate with one another over their policy positions, the questions sought to catch each respective candidate off-guard with a question that challenged them to explain a critical observation surfaced by the interviewer. Many were indeed gotcha questions, but these were the focus of all the debates. Many others were just silly, such as the very first question asked in the CNBC debate that pushed each candidate to identify their major weakness. That is of course a standard interview question for entry-level job candidates, which most job applicants are well coached to avoid, as each presidential candidate did. But even addressing such a silly question belittles the candidates.
This was particularly problematic in the CNBC debate for two reasons. First, the candidates and their handlers had been experiencing this treatment over the course of the previous debates, so they must have begun to realize how the manner of questioning was undermining their credibility and failing to focus on the issues. It is true that candidates themselves are often adverse to clearly taking positions on policy questions. It is one way to lose as well as gain support. But policy differences are what a debate should seek to uncover. Secondly, the candidates and audience was set up to expect this debate to focus on issues in finance and business. Finally, we were told, policy issues would be the center of attention. This was not the case.
Why did the moderators fail to address the issues?
The major reason given by most candidates focused on a partisan, liberal bias of the media, which led them to attack the Republican candidates. I believe this explanation misses the mark. Let me suggest several other more plausible arguments.
First, it is not clear that the moderators really understand how to ask debate questions. Even when challenged on the questions, most of the media commentators defended themselves, saying that they asked ‘tough questions’ of all candidates. They seemed focused on not asking a question that would be easy for a candidate to easily respond with a prepared response. But the serious complaints were not about moderators asking tough questions. The moderators did not even understand the criticism being levelled on them. They seldom defended the style of questions, which seemed oriented to one-on-one personal interviews. The debates became a set of serial personal interviews, occasionally asking more than one candidate to answer or respond. Instead, they should come up with tough questions that will generate a debate among the candidates, such as around the budget, civil rights, or foreign policy. These questions were few and far between.
Secondly, and related to this propensity for one-on-one interview questions, was an apparently clear effort for interviewers to impress their peers. How did the interviewers look and sound during the debates, was probably more important than how the candidates differentiated themselves on the issues. Note how many reviews of the debates focused on this or that moderator, as opposed to the candidates. This was as much about how many minutes does each moderator garner, as about the time allotted to each candidate.
Thirdly, and related to this, is the media ratings game. Inadvertently, as the moderators prepared for the debates with their colleagues, you can imagine them rejecting various policy-oriented questions as too complex, or not that interesting to their imagined audience. In contrast, a simple question like ‘What is your major weakness?’ is easily understood and suspenseful. So the questions that would be more likely to engage an audience accustomed to game shows and reality TV get prioritized and those that are too policy oriented get shelved. The outcome was not a debate, but an entertaining three-ring circus, and one that successfully gained a huge viewership, more than the world series games that CNBC imagined itself to be in competition for viewers. This was more about generating ratings, than ensuring that viewers gained an understanding of how candidates stood on the issues.
I’m not sure this is a case of the voters getting the candidates they deserve, as much as the viewers getting the moderators they deserve. This is not so much the outcome of a imagined partisan bias of the media as it is about a lack of professionalism (not even understanding the aim of a ‘debate’ v an interview), appealing to peers, and scoring high in the media ratings.
Those complaining about the way CNN is selecting candidates for the main event of the second GOP debate have a very good point. I’ve written before about the mistakes being made by Fox News in trying to conduct a live broadcast of a 17 person debate, but given that CNN is set to continue the same mistakes with two groups, the selection of those for the main event takes on even more importance for this second debate. CNN’s plans promise to compound the problems encountered by Fox. No lessons learned.
The complaint is that all the polls before (4 polls) and after (2 polls) the first Fox debate are simply averaged to determine the 10 leaders. This is biased against any change in the status of candidates. At minimum, the 4 polls before and the 2 polls after the first debate should be averaged to see who moves up and who moves down.
CNN falls back on the rules for an excuse to ignore this problem, but the rules they have drawn up with the GOP are blindingly biased. Please do the arithmetic and exercise some common sense.
Multimedia Convergence: A New Approach to Presidential Debates
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
— James Madison
What should be done to reform the currently abysmal televised presidential debates?
We have criticized recent media efforts to stage a meaningful debate among the presidential candidates. We have also enumerated a number of reasons why online debates have not achieved their potential. In this post, we suggest that the way forward might be a converged approach in which the mass media, Internet and social media are combined to provide multiple platforms for more equitable and informative treatments of all candidates, while also providing engaging and accessible means for voters to evaluate the candidates on all the factors they consider most important – positions on key issues; personalities, including strength of character, experience, judgment, intelligence and leadership skills; and endorsements by credible and respected individuals, organizations, media outlets and political parties.
Consider the following:
1) Reporters on a news channel (Fox, CNN, CBS, PBS) ask all the candidates questions by posting them on a moderated election website created by the channel (or collaboratively by multiple news channels). Reporters post the questions in a video format and ideally in audio and textual formats as well. The news channel moderates the website to ensure that multiple reporters do not ask the same question, and that the questions are judged to be important and pertinent to the election. The channel also invites viewers to submit candidate questions and can post them as well. The questions, for example, might ask: What’s your position on the Iran Deal? Improving the economy? Abortion? The growing divides between rich and poor?
2) The news channels give all candidates an opportunity to post the answers to the questions in short videos, and in audio and textual formats as well. The news channels offer candidates the use of their affiliates’ TV studios, teleprompters and makeup facilities in cities through the nation to videotape their statements. The video responses are limited to one minute (or even 30 seconds). The news channels post the answers on the website, so viewers can click the question, then click and watch the answers from the candidates they’re interested in. A clickable “map” on the site shows a flow-chart with the questions (“Iran”) and candidate answers (“Clinton”).
To be sure, this proposal might encounter resistance. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites, and they would have to collaborate to create a single unified website. Candidates would need to acquire easy access to videotaping facilities in TV stations, network affiliates and news channel studios across the nation to allow them to create quick response videos. Campaign consultants would have to soften their resistance to allowing their candidates to take detailed positions on specific issues or make more spontaneous quick-response statements. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user inter-activeness of the Internet – which offer more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.
3) Reporters post follow-up questions for the responding candidates, and each candidate has a chance to videotape a response/answer to the reporters’ questions and/or any of the other candidates’ first position posts (in #2). The expanding visual map shows the chain of responses.
4) If necessary, reporters can post follow-up questions to dig into the issues, raise difficulties with various answers, ask two candidates to respond to each other, etc. Candidates may answer the reporter’s follow-up questions or rebut the last candidates’ statements. The visual map will expand so users can follow the chain of events and watch individual candidate conversations or match-ups.
Up to this point, voters visiting the website can structure their own debate: click one question, then click several candidate responses, then click various candidate rebuttals, etc. Each candidate has an incentive to respond to reporters’ questions or risk marginalization in the debate. Even leading candidates have an incentive to respond, since this medium offers them the likelihood of reaching a larger audience. As more candidates respond to more issues, the site becomes more valuable to more candidates and voters, creating incentives for both to participate.
5) The news channels transform the Internet debates into breaking TV news coverage. The host news channel (or news channel collaboration) prepares nightly or weekly news stories on the expanding debates, describing newly announced positions, highlighting candidate rebuttals to difficult questions, featuring voter inquiries, focusing on emerging disputes. News commentators provide their opinions on the evolving debates. And this TV news coverage is then posted back on the website and made available to Internet visitors.
6) Outside reporters or bloggers assemble their own news stories from the posted video questions and candidate statements — which are deemed to be “open source” materials and freely available to all. These stories summarize the positions of particular candidates on specific issues, point out how candidate positions differ, and use video clips and quotes as illustrations. News providers then blog, post or broadcast summaries, creating another layer of coverage.
7) Visitors to any of these news sites post comments or responses to the candidate positions, and they post comments on the TV news coverage and print editorials. Candidates respond directly, answering questions, critiquing summaries, clarifying positions and raising new issues.
8) News organizations provide links to more detailed background research on the substantive issues being discussed (e.g., statistics on abortions in the U.S., the negotiations leading up to the Iran Deal, etc.).
9) Candidates provide links to video, audio or textual endorsements by prominent individuals, organizations or media outlets. Political parties add their views. Voters could add their questions and assess the personalities and leadership qualities of candidates by watching their video answers.
10) The website site grows into an expanding “wiki” for presidential candidates and voter information. The website’s programming infrastructure is made available free to other users. State and local news organizations adapt it for local political races. The sites are archived for historical and research purposes.
Such a converged multimedia process might generate an expanding, more informative and in-depth discussion of important political and campaign issues. By integrating television, audio, print and the Internet, and by using each to generate programming for the others, reporters could edit candidate question and answers into an evolving multimedia debate, showing videos of candidates making statements, rebutting each other, and commenting on the rebuttals — similar to a news summary of an actual debate — without the web user having to click on each item. Site visitors can dig into the issues and compare candidates’ positions. Web visitors can structure their own debates, or choose to look at what particular candidates post about specific issues, or simply watch the video news summaries, or even read about it in a text format. It would also give the candidates the ability to express emotion, use rhetoric, and engage in a back-and-forth in a virtual format.
To be sure, this scheme might not work for various reasons. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites. Candidates would need to obtain the technology platforms to create quick response videos. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user interactivity of the Internet, which offers more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.
A key issue revolves around what questions get asked, but there are a number of reasonable options: A moderating panel could choose, edit and post questions to avoid needless repetition and ensure a respectful and civil discussion. National polls could be conducted to see what major questions concern the voters (as Fox did), and then use a selected number of those video questions to spark responses from the candidates. Or candidates could identify issues they wish to address and then post statements on those issues, thereby challenging other candidates to address those same issues.
When the election process has narrowed the race down to two to three candidates competing for the Presidency, a live televised debate, complemented by the use of the Internet and social media, is viable and attractive. From the Kennedy-Nixon debates to today, voters have found proven value in seeing such a real-time debate among the top contenders for high office. This approach, however, cannot be scaled up to accommodate large numbers of candidates, such as the 17 in the 2016 GOP primaries, without adopting a dramatically different scheme. We hope our ideas will stimulate thinking about the advantages such a new approach would offer.
The televised and Facebooked GOP debate was a disaster. The clear loser of the debates was the media, particularly Fox News and Facebook, for putting together a media event that made a mockery of televised debates. It clearly drew a large audience (over 23 million viewers), and gave some greater national visibility to some of the lesser-known candidates in the race. But these virtues are not enough to compensate for the problems showcased by this spectacle. Commentators have said they thought they were watching a Saturday Night Live spoof of the debates. But these were the real thing and closer to Hunger Games or X Factor than SNL. They include:
Producing a Horse Race
The media like to make elections into a horse race as a means to generate an audience. Nevertheless, this took the metaphor to an entirely higher level. The announcers, the staging, lighting, and build up were all about who will win and lose the race and much less to do with the issues.
The Absence of any Meaningful Debate
It was not a debate. The candidates did not have opportunities to debate issues with one another. This was an obvious challenge from the moment the debates were proposed: How can a debate deal with 17 candidates. Breaking it up into two groups, each too large did not help. More importantly, there was no debate. It was a series of long-winded gotcha questions to make the moderates look clever and tuff and the candidates squirm, and not have sufficient time to adequately respond. It was as if the moderators sought to conduct a series of one-minute David Frost Nixon interviews, but could not and did not succeed.
Much was made of the child’s table for the 7 excluded from the adult table, but the entire debate was childish. The very idea of asking the candidates to raise their hand in response to the moderator’s question was ridiculously childish. Every candidate should have raised their hand, or left the stage. How patronizing and silly, and this was the beginning of the show.
The stars of this program were the moderators and the pundits they asked to praise their work at the end of the debate, and pronounce the winners and losers. The candidates should have been at the center, not the moderators. All the ‘experts’ questioned by the moderators were falling over themselves to praise the moderators’ questions, and play along with the seriousness of this fiasco.
Advertising and Sponsor Bias
The ‘debates’ also showcased Fox News and Facebook. This was all about advertising. Fox News has a reputation for biased news coverage. Facebook has no reputation at all for staging a political debate. The combination was a disaster. Did you notice how a critical question about ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo!’ did not mention Facebook?
Three Standards for Grading the Televised Debates
On what criteria can we grade the Fox News-Facebook show? To address that, it is worth asking: Why do we want debates, what value do they offer, and why the Fox debates failed to satisfy those needs.
Voters want at least three things out of a debate. They want to know: Where do candidates stand on the issues? Do they have presidential personalities (smart, trustworthy, competent leadership, compassion, integrity, etc.)? And what do other respected individuals and organizations think of them (endorsements, party affiliations, etc.)?
The Fox format certainly didn’t allow the viewers an opportunity to understand and compare the candidates on key issues. Climate change, for example, was never mentioned. Foreign policy was virtually ignored (except immigration). Domestic economic policy was not significantly explored, although it was mentioned by a few. Educational policy was briefly referenced (“Common Core,” states’ rights), but nothing significant emerged. In short, it is doubtful that viewers, after more than two hours of back and forth, came away with any clear sense of where their candidates stood on many of the most important issues facing the nation. Actually, there may be better methods of exploring candidates’ positions on issues — such as text and analysis. But a debate should allow a moderator, or opposing candidates, to challenge a candidate’s position on specific issues, dig into them, and ultimately explain them more clearly to the audience. During the Fox debate, for example, Scott Walker was asked why he would rather let a mother die than sacrifice a fetus to an abortion. That was a powerful question. Not surprisingly, Walker didn’t answer it, and the questioner didn’t follow up or point out that Walker didn’t answer. So the debate failed to raise many significant issues, and it failed to create an opportunity for the viewer to learn candidates’ positions.
Debates may excel at revealing candidates’ personalities: Are they are good speakers? Can they think on their feet? Do they have persuasive answers to difficult questions? Have they thought through their answers intelligently so they are coherent and persuasive? Do they speak with energy and are they persuasive? Do they exhibit leadership qualities, and more? The Fox debate was minimally successful at that for some candidates: It allowed viewers to get a better sense of Trump, for better or worse. It showed the speaking style of many of the candidates. But it was so fragmentary, jumped around so much, and asked two candidates the same question, but then turned to other questions, that it failed almost entirely to give the candidates a chance to show the viewers “who they were.”
Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.
One might easily conclude, therefore, that this debate, according to the three criteria listed above, should probably receive a grade of D+. Although debates have the potential to enlighten voters, this one certainly failed significantly in that regard.
What can be done?
The news media in one fell swoop seem to have lost the credibility to manage or produce a televised or social media debate. What could be done to salvage this election?
First, any future televised debate must have more involvement of the candidates in the design of the debate format and production. Candidates could not have been involved in staging this Fox News debate, as it is hard to imagine them agreeing to such a terrible arrangement.
Secondly, there is a need to shift debates away from commercial television and social media to avoid this dumbing down of debates into an X Factor spectacle. Some not for profit organizations have led in the development of Internet-based debate platforms in the past, such as the Center for Governmental Studies, with its work on The Democracy Network (DNet), but this would require major foundation funding that could only be assembled in the longer-term. A new debate platform for the Internet could be developed, but in addition to funding, it would require work, creativity, experimentation, a budget sizeable enough to try different ideas, and a willingness to stick it out until it worked, for it to be successful in an age of streaming video. In the meantime, Secretary of State voter information websites could be enlisted to use more up-to-date Internet techniques and applications that would allow candidates to post videos, endorsements, etc. (See “Voter Information in the Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” which Tracy Westen co-authored — http://cgs.policyarchive.org) might be a transition. Alternatively, PBS could pioneer some work in this area on its websites.
Thirdly, there might be a case to move away from an emphasis on debates to focus more attention on voters, and opinion leaders among the voters, to inform themselves. With today’s technology, voters can be urged to source their own material, and not look to televised debates to clarify the issues or understand the candidates. Any voter with access to the Internet, whether directly or through a family member or friend, can source their own information. What does candidate x think about issue y? A voter driven process, focused on voters that are motivated to seek information, could inform an electorate in ways far less driven by media entertainment values and formats.
Someone will have to figure out (i) how to cater to the various voter strategies and meet the desires of voters for information in various formats; (ii) figure out how to make money out of online presidential debates; and (iii) promote the new approach enough until it takes hold, without sinking to creating a media circus like that used by Fox News and Facebook for the GOP debates.
[After posting our blog on ‘A Dirty Dozen Reasons ..’, Tracy Westen followed up with an email detailing additional challenges learned during the 1990s when he worked through the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles to improve voter information. His note was so informative, and useful, that I have posted it here with his permission.)
“I’ve been thinking about other deterrents to Internet debates that we did not cover, partly because I didn’t think they applied to Presidential candidates, but upon reflection they might.
You’ll recall that I was involved in developing formats for cities that wanted to use video to present their local candidates. We were able to get LA to enact this approach into its ordinances, and every election, all candidates for city office get a chance to videotape a short presentation on why they should be elected. These are available on the City’s municipal access channel and website. It’s now been running for perhaps 8 years or so. We also worked with Santa Monica to do it, and they’ve experimented with a number of formats: videotaped presentations, short debates, rebuttals, Q&A videotaped from an audience, so the user could click a question and see any answer, etc. New York hired us as consultants for two election cycles and gave all their local candidates — close to 200 — a chance to come to a studio, with professional lighting, makeup and a teleprompter, and video two versions of a statement of up to two minutes, and then pick the one they wanted to be used. They were broadcast on the city’s TV channel and I believe, but am not sure, were available on the city’s website. We also persuaded Time Warner to do the same thing one year on its Channel One, a dedicated NY news channel for cable, and in 1996 we developed the nation’s first digital, interactive, on-demand presentation of Presidential candidates for cable TV on Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida.
What did we learn? Several things:
In these early trials, my first suggestion was to require candidates to video tape at least two minutes! My idea was that they would have to get substantive to fill the time, instead of just using platitudes. To my dismay, I discovered that many candidates couldn’t fill two minutes: they typically didn’t have enough to say and ran out of ideas. Depressing! In addition, I found that viewers didn’t want to sit through two minutes — it’s actually very long, when you look at current TV editing techniques. So we had to drop that requirement and say “up to 2 minutes.” Almost no one ever taped anything that long. Saddening!
Lack of Experience
Local candidates (for city council, etc.) usually had little or no experience with TV. Their videotaped statements were, often, not very good: they read mechanically, didn’t express much feeling, and droned on.
Lack of Familiarity with TV Production
Our first trials with the City of LA offered candidates a chance to videotape their own statements and bring them to the City for airing on the city’s cable TV channel. We thought they would jump at the chance. At first, nothing happened: no one participated. So I arranged to have Time Warner Cable in West LA offer them a fully staffed studio, with makeup and camera operators, and all they had to do was call up, book an appointment, show up, and have the statements prepared for them. Only about 50% of the candidates participated — still that showed us that you have to offer them full service production, because none of them knew how to get a short video produced. We also did the same thing with presidential candidates in 1996: we offered them the opportunity to send us short video statements on 5 issues, and said we’d put them on Time Warner’s Full Service Network (the first interactive digital system) in Orlando, Fla. We only got a few responses and then had to hire camera crews to go to the candidates and get them to prepare statements: only a few did that.
Our lesson: at least in the early days, when streaming wasn’t any good, when YouTube didn’t exist, and candidates, especially at the lower levels, weren’t used to TV, we had to do everything for them. That’s probably still the case with lower races — city candidates through many state legislative races. I suppose, also, candidates didn’t see the benefits, since Internet traffic was so limited at that time. At the Presidential level, however, my assumption has been that the candidates are comfortable with TV and know how to produce short spot announcements. Still, while they may be willing to produce TV commercials (typically, they don’t contain the candidates except for a voice over at the end to qualify for lowest unit rate), they may not spend much time actually taping appearances in those ads – often they’re narrated by a third person and either attack their opponents or tout their records, without much candidate video. So, in short: Many candidates may not be comfortable with TV, or with the short video statement, and may not have easy access to recording facilities — so we’ve found we have to make arrangements for them (actually, like a debate, where all the candidate has to do is show up).
At first, we tried to get spontaneity. We asked them questions and taped their answers for their statements. But some fumbled around and didn’t have very clear answers. And were nervous. So we used a teleprompter, and that seemed to work much better — but many, most, had never used one, so they looked a bit awkward: their eyes moved around, etc. Still, that was better.
Comfort with a Debate Format
Presidential candidates are generally used to sound bites and TV interviews and have the know-how to handle themselves in that format. Yes, they have to “practice” and “train” before a debate, but that’s a back-and-forth discussion, with a camera, and experts coaching them. Then all they have to do is show up and “perform.” Telling them they have to prepare, say, 5 to 10 video statements, then rebuttal video statements, then answers to voter questions also on video, over a period of time, perhaps months — that may be logistically more difficult for them.
One of my early ideas was that candidates would just sit down in front of a computer with a camera in the monitor, read a few voter questions, videotape a few quick answers, and transmit them into a central website, where they would be inserted in the right place. Probably naive – many didn’t have that capability, at least in the 1990s, and their campaign managers might not want such off-the-cuff statements inserted into the video stream. So there are logistical problems that may deter candidates from participating, including lack of familiarity with the format, lack of experience in making the videos interesting, and probably resistance from campaign managers who want to control everything but don’t have the time to spend doing it and not seeing the payoff.
I once had a very experienced campaign manager say to me, about Project VoteSmart — which sends a questionnaire around to all federal candidates, asks them to answer the questions [developed by reporters and polling], and posts them on the web — that the first thing he tells his candidates when they get the VoteSmart questions is to “throw them away.” He said his candidates gain nothing from answering specific issue questions: they only risk losing voters. Rather, he wants to control the message on themes his polling shows work best for that candidate. Project Vote Smart periodically ran into trouble because only small percentages of candidates bothered to answer their questions and get the free postings on the website.
More Experience but Challenges Remain
There’s more — I helped write a book, “Video Voter,” on this subject*, with recommendations to cities and others wanting to build voter information websites — but it was pretty upbeat and didn’t go into all the negatives. We’d need to think this through, in light of todays’ candidates’ experience with and access to video, to design a contemporary format.
Finally, as I think you know, I concluded several years ago that, rather than try to persuade the networks to develop websites like the Democracy Network (DNet) for candidate debates, I’d try to persuade Secretary of State websites to do it. I co-authored a book for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), “Voter Info in Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” in which we started by grading all 51 state (and DC) election websites on their presentation of substantive voter information. We developed a list of about 30 criteria and examined every website. We also made suggestions for what Secretaries of State should do to improve their websites and adopt contemporary web techniques, with an emphasis on video. This is worth thinking about, since (a) the networks probably won’t see any profit in what we’re proposing, and (b) Secretaries of State already have websites they can adapt, and doing so wouldn’t be that expensive. I have encountered problems with this, however, and can go into them separately. (I also put together a funding proposal for a foundation to fund our working with 3 test states to get them to upgrade their voter information websites but the foundation didn’t accept the proposal.)
So, at least two options: Persuade the news media or other Internet sites (Facebook, Google, others?) to develop online candidate debates (I tried to persuade TiVo to do it, and suggested the name “TiVoter” for them, but they didn’t adopt it), or persuade Secretaries of State to modernize their sites and offer many of the features we’ve proposed. Perhaps there are more. Apple, with it’s new Apple TV coming out in the fall?”
At a time when the 16 GOP candidates are preparing for televised debates on August 6, 2015, in which each candidate might get about 5-10 total minutes of air time, without significant time for rebuttals or follow-up questions, it is appropriate to ask: Why aren’t the debates moving online?
The Internet could provide a platform that would accommodate all 16 candidates, enabling them plenty of time to fully address more questions, in video, audio and textual formats. Based on past experience with initiatives aimed at informing voters online, we suggest that there are at least twelve reasons why candidate debates have not moved to the Internet, despite all of its amazing capabilities and potential be provide a fair and more informative debate platform:
1. Digital Divides. Candidates and networks may fear accusations that they are disenfranchising voters who are not online. Although the 20 percent of Americans who are offline are disproportionately older, they are higher propensity voters and a key target audience of the campaigns. Younger Internet users are less likely to vote. However, given the likelihood of the networks covering online debates by capturing key moments for broadcasting, the disenfranchisement seems to lack merit. Moreover, Internet debates can be in addition to, not a substitute for, some television debates.
2. Competitive Advantage. Debates can be influential. However, they are not equally advantageous for all candidates. Generally, those candidates in the lead before a debate have the most to lose by debating with candidates who are lesser known and have had less exposure. Even if 5 to 10 candidates are on a televised debate, adding more to an Internet orchestrated debate could raise the profile of a lesser-known candidate. For this reason, the ten leading candidates are unlikely to support or participate in a more inclusive debate in which all 16 get equivalent billing and time.
3. Losing Money. TV debates haven’t been profitable for TV networks, so there isn’t a large enough cadre of experienced TV producers who have cut their teeth on profitable TV debates and are thinking about ways to scale the debates and move them to the Internet in a profitable way. This would not explain why Britain, with its public service broadcasting traditions, has also failed to make this move to the Internet, but even they need to spend to produce a debate that might not generate the audience garnered by less costly programming.
4. News Credibility. A network might want to broadcast candidate debates to gain news credibility, not for profit. Providing a platform for debates would be a good thing, and boost the public service image of the broadcaster. Moving to the Internet might lose this credibility boost, and the networks might fear it would drain away their TV audiences.
5. One-Offs. Debates are periodic – happening only every 4 years for presidential candidates. Internet sites are less likely to invest the sums necessary to develop and promote a sophisticated debate interface, when they would only operate every 4 years. Every election cycle, the network would have to start all over again with graphic web design and promotional work, unable to spread the costs over a large number of debates.
6. Media Events. TV debates can be promoted as happening at a certain time and therefore have the potential to become a national media event. Currently, the run-up to the first GOP debate with Donald Trump ahead in the primary polls has created a sense of anticipation. The Internet’s strategic advantage is being accessible anytime, from anywhere, yet it may not create the mass audience that television and advertisers crave. The advantages of the Internet might undermine the strategy of TV to create a must-watch media event with the potential for a large mass audience.
7. Avoiding Issues. Candidates often want to avoid talking about issues, at least with any specificity. They can lose voters every time they take a stand on a particular issue. Candidates would prefer to remain vague and talk about “moving the country forward,” how their opponents are “weak on terrorism,” or against the “right to life.” Short answers and 5 minutes of airtime allow them to avoid specific issues. In contrast, the Internet would not impose an artificial limit on a candidate’s response to a question concerning a specific issue, and would therefore push them into more and more specific issue positions. So most candidates might want to resist an Internet debate scenario that puts them in a position where they are expected to participate fully, rebut others with specifics, and answer specific voter inquiries.
8. Push Pull. Candidates love campaign ads on TV, because they capture the attention of viewers who probably did not turn on the TV set to find political TV ads – they might have just tuned into see the evening news, or a show that attracts their particular demographic. Likewise, the placement and timing of debates can gain an audience that did not search out the debates. In contrast, the Internet is more of a pull medium – prospective voters need to decide to pull information from the Web and seek out candidates’ views. Candidates may avoid participating in a medium in which users have to find them, instead of candidates finding the viewers.
9. Ad Placement. It is not clear that ads on the Internet work as well as TV ads in saturating viewers’ attention, so candidates may not find the medium as desirable as TV. Internet ads may be a little like newspaper ads — it’s pretty easy to skip right over them and concentrate on the text of the news stories. By contrast, you can’t avoid the TV commercial unless you mute it or fast-forward over a pre-recorded show.
10. Swing Voters: TV ads often try to reach ‘un-decideds,” who may not vote, but if they do, aren’t sure for whom to vote. These may not be the people who will spend time seeking out information, debates or candidate statements on the Internet. Un-decideds may ultimately vote because they like a candidate’s looks, or think she’s “honest,” or make their decision on the basis of a single issue (religion in the schools). Candidates may feel it’s easier to reach these potential or swing voters with TV ads. This keeps their campaign strategically focused on the mass media of TV.
11. (Ir)Rational Voters. Ultimately, use of the Internet to enable a full set of candidates to more fully debate the important issues at stake is based on the premise that the rational voter will want to have more information on the issues at stake, not a series of canned sound bites. However, the rational voter might not wish to invest much time into information gathering and instead take shortcuts, like voting on the basis of party affiliations or taking cues from others who follow politics (and how much difference will their vote make, anyway?). Experiments with online voting guides suggest that voters have at least 3 strategies for deciding which candidates to support: (1) issues: a small minority of voters cast their ballots based on candidate positions on the issues that matter to the voter; (2) emotional responses: many more base their vote on a ‘personal gestalt’, such as whether particular candidates seem personable, smart, a “real person like me,” tough, family oriented, honest – or other personal aspects of the candidate; and (3) shortcuts: many voters just support candidates who belong to a specific political party, or are endorsed by people or organizations they trust. Online platforms can address the needs of all three of these voter strategies – by enabling candidates to provide textual or detailed video responses to specific issues for the issue-oriented voters, short videos for those wanting to assess their personal character, and endorsements by outside groups for the short-cutters.
13. Innovation. In the early days of the Internet, such as during the 2000 Presidential election, the idea of an online platform for candidates to convey their positions on issues was innovative and exciting. Since then, while advances in such capabilities as online video streaming have been dramatic, the idea of online candidate discussions may no longer seem to be an innovation. Many developments, such as video communication or online news, have failed repeatedly, but they may eventually find the right time and circumstances to succeed. Online debate platforms may require the emergence of novel formats and new modes of presentation – techniques that will excite candidates and voters to experiment once again and draw them to this new medium.
The next logical question is: What kind of design would provide a sufficiently innovative and effective Internet-based platform for candidate debates? We’ll address this in a subsequent post.
Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton
July 31, 2015
 Tracy Westen was the director and founder of The Democracy Network, an online platform for candidate debate and voter information, which was launched in 1996, adopted by Time Warner and AOL, and by 2000, received millions of visitors a week before the Presidential elections. The League of Women Voters subsequently adopted it as an online vehicle for improved voter information. Many of the following considerations are based on the experience gained from this early and innovative experiment in adapting the Internet to political debate.
 For example, see an analysis of the first televised debates in the UK, which appeared to advantage the lesser known candidate in Dutton, William H. and Shipley, Andrew, The Role of Britain’s Televised Leadership Debates in Shaping Political Engagement (September 28, 2010). LEADERS IN THE LIVING ROOM: THE PRIME MINISTERIAL DEBATES OF 2010: EVIDENCE, EVALUATION AND SOME RECOMMENDATIONS, S. Coleman, Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1778442
Televised presidential debates are stuck in the past. The networks televised the first presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Despite the passage of over a half a century, television has not significantly improved its debate formats. And though we are now deeply into the third decade of the Internet/Web revolution, this digital technology has also failed to develop new ways to present presidential debates. But imagine the following: A coalition of news organizations creates a single website for presidential candidates and gives each of them an individual password. Each candidate uploads biographical information, newspaper editorials, endorsements, copies of print, radio and TV ads, speeches and other video materials to their section of the site. Most importantly, each candidate picks a number of issues (e.g., “Iranian Nuclear Deal”) and uploads a video comment on that issue to the “debate” section of the site. Each candidate can follow up with rebuttal videos to each or all of the other candidates, then upload further rebuttals, and so on. Viewers can click on any two candidates and watch their video comments and rebuttals in sequence, as each replies to the other. Voters can upload their comments or pose specific questions to the candidates, and the candidates can reply to selected questions — in textual or video formats. Nightly TV newscasts can discuss the debates, feature short clips from the candidates and highlight significant points or factual inaccuracies. Or casting our vision further into the future: A voter can ask her TV/Computer (“Siri”) a question, such as “What is Hilary Clinton’s position on the minimum wage?” The computer’s Intelligent Agent can instantly search the Internet, synthesize an answer from Ms. Clinton’s prior recorded comments, then deliver them in video, audio or textual formats. This would allow voters to ask candidates their own questions, from their homes or their mobile devices, and receive personalized answers: “Well, Tracy, unlike the other candidates, I believe we should….” The Internet, in other words, could bring presidential debates into the living room, or to any mobile device, and allow voters to stage their own candidate debates, or conduct their own candidate interviews. All that is needed is the creative energy to visualize and implement new ways the Internet can be used to advance the quality of presidential debates.