The Rules of Real World Games & the RNC

There is a debate underway in the Republican Party (the RNC) on the rules governing the primary elections and caucuses and their translation of their results into delegates to the party’s convention.

One side argues that the rules are unfair, in that the popular vote is not being mapped proportionately into the delegate selection process, which is biased in favor of one or another candidate. The other side argues that the rules were set months ago, and that everyone knew the rules of the game, so criticizing the rules is simply a reflection of candidates not being prepared to compete under the existing rules.

So many pundits and party officials seem to buy into the ‘rules were set and known’ camp, that I must protest. Come on.

Think about our economy. Imagine someone arguing that income inequalities are unfair, and others arguing that everyone knew the rules of the game since they could read, so you shouldn’t whine about the outcome. The poor might not have known the rules, or were not prepared to compete under the rules, but maybe the rules advantage the more well to do. Whatever the reason, this camp argues that we can’t question, much less change the rules.

Well, in the real world, as opposed to games for entertainment, we do change the rules of the game. This is a basic difference between the real world and play. And in play, if the rules of the game are unfair, people stop playing the game. In the real world, people assess the outcomes of rules, and adjust them overtime to ensure they are fair.

In politics, in contrast to our economic system, the rules are always as much at issue as are the plays and strategies of the players. In fact, in politics, the most effective strategies are to change the rules of the game.

So it is ridiculous to argue that it is not acceptable to challenge the fairness or democratic quality of the rules underpinning delegate selection or any other set of rules governing elections. The GOP within particular states should defend their rules, and explain why they are fair. To say they are not open to contention is a way to avoid the charge. Just because the rules have been set does not mean they are inherently fair.

Opportunities for CNN and Candidates in the First Democratic Party Debate

Five candidates are preparing for the CNN debate to be held in Las Vegas on 13 October 2015: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but also Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. There are two likely outcomes.

The first is an opportunity to actually debate the issues. The previous Fox and CNN debates failed to engage the candidates in a genuine debate of the issues, perhaps as a consequence of the sheer number of candidates on stage. On Tuesday, with five candidates, there will be no excuse for not asking the candidates to debate key issues, yet that remains to be seen. [Tracy Westen and I have been writing about this shortcoming of the GOP debates.]

Secondly, I expect that this is a key opportunity for the lesser known candidates to gain greater visibility. Martin O’Malley, for example, could gain support for his candidacy by virtue of just being heard. Even though there are fewer candidates in the Democratic Party Primary, it is amazing how focused the media have been on the two frontrunners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Even Joe Biden, yet to decide on his candidacy, has received tremendous coverage. The other three candidates have received very little indeed. For example, the Sunday NYT (11 October 2015) prepares readers for the coming debate by discussing the debating skills of Bernie and Hillary, but not one column inch on O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee. This is one more illustration of the limitations of the mass media in elections. More use needs to be made of the Internet, Web and social media to cover a wider range of issues and candidates.

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It might well be that the three lesser knowns will have the most to win in this CNN debate, as this stage will give them the best opportunity to-date to make their case as credible alternatives to the two front-runners. My prediction is that Martin O’Malley will be the biggest winner of Tuesday’s CNN debate, but the most important outcome should be the airing of candidate positions on key issues. This is the responsibility of the moderators at CNN.

#CNNDebate Needs to Focus Candidates on the Issues, Not Each Other

Debate Platform at Regan Library
Debate Platform at Regan Library

Bad news heading into the #CNNDebate. CNN is strategising on ways to get the candidates ‘interacting’ with each other – which is what a debate should indeed entail (unlike the first Fox News-Facebook disaster). However, trying to generate arguments among the candidates, which seems to be the strategy, is different from getting the candidates to focus on issues. Donald Trump claims to be talented in the art of negotiation, so he must know that a successful negotiating strategy is not focused on who is right and who is wrong, but on the issue at hand – how to solve a problem, for example. Let’s hope the moderators can steer this to a debate over the issues and not over each others’ looks, energy, tone, or style.

See the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/16/us/politics/cnn-hopes-to-capture-candidates-combative-spirit-in-gop-debate.html

An Open Appeal to #CNNDebate Moderators – Focus on the Issues

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 15.11.16

I have been critical of the first GOP debate organized by Fox News and Facebook, despite its record-breaking audience. I’ve also written a number of posts about how the broadcast failed to focus on the issues. Given the excitement building around the CNN Debate on 16 September, let me make a simple appeal to the moderators, with apologies if this seems presumptuous:

First, avoid silly raise your hands questions. Ask simple open-ended questions about the issues. Let candidates explain their positions on some of the compelling issues of this election, such as around immigration and the Iran deal. I realize you cannot let every candidate comment on every issue, but if at least two comment, and one or more respond, you should begin to develop more voter awareness of positions on the key issues.

Secondly, avoid becoming the center of attention – that role should be left to the candidates. So rather than try to impress the audience or your peers with clever questions, try to enable the candidates to focus on the issues.

Much has been made about the degree style and personality were the key takeaways from the last debate, but that was in large part a consequence of the ways in which the debate was handled. By focusing on the issues, the style and personalities of the candidates will inevitably come through, but they will not be the only value of the debate.

 

CNN and GOP Need to Do Their Arithmetic

CNN and GOP Need to Do Their Arithmetic

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.

What's wrong with this debate?
What’s wrong with this debate?

Grading the Fox News-Facebook GOP Presidential Debate Spectacle by Bill Dutton and Tracy Westen

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.

Childish Antics

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.

Moderator-Pundit Centric

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.)?

Issues

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.

Personalities

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.”

Endorsements

Apart from revealing that all the candidates were Republicans, except possibly Trump, it’s not clear that viewers learned anything of the candidates’ supporters.

The Grade

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.

A Dirty Dozen: 12 Reasons Candidates and Networks Fail to Move Presidential Debates Online by Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

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[1], 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.[2] 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.[3] 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

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] PEW surveys found that two-thirds of voters watching the Obama debates said the debates influenced their votes. See: http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/most-say-presidential-debates-influence-their-vote/

[3] 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