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.

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    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.

O! Heavens! Bernie is consistent? He has a big idea, and that is revolutionary!

Jason Horowitz’s has an article in today’s NYTs about Senator Bernie Sanders, entitled ‘Over Decades, Sanders Has Stayed on Message’. Staying on message is generally perceived to be a virtue in political campaigns, but somehow, in this election; Senator Sanders is frequently criticized for sticking to his message for too long, and across too many issues. Consistency has become a liability, to his critics, as if conservatives would be criticized for being too consistent about the risks of big government.

From my perspective, the virtue of the Sander’s message is that it emanates from, clarifies, and extends one big idea. He has a really big idea about the unfair and highly skewed distribution of wealth in the top one percent and this problem infects politics and issues across the board, most notably around campaign financing and influence. Our progressive tax system has failed to deal with the very top rung. Yes, he has spoken about this idea for decades, but it has been only in recent years, in the aftermath of economic problems, particularly the housing crisis, international trade issues, and failures of American foreign policy that his message has begun to reach, and resonate with, a growing number of American voters.

Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)
Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)

A colleague once complimented me (yes, this doesn’t happen often), who said a book of mine was anchored in one idea. He went on to explain that he thought a book either had one idea, or none. Maybe this was faint praise, but I have thought about this often and I think it not only applies to books, but also to our presidential primary campaigns.

In my opinion, Bernie Sanders does have one big idea – one that enables him to address many different issue areas in a coherent and consistent way. Most other candidates have strategies, such as following the party’s mainstream, or keeping a finger in the wind of their primary constituencies, to ensure that they have the right position on each issue, nuanced for the moment. However articulate, and however informed, on the legislative and administrative histories of these issues, most candidates reflect a proverbial ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy on an issue-by-issue basis. They have focus groups, polls, and advisors on many issues, leading to many positions across the issues, not all that consistent. This is because they don’t have a big idea. For example, adhering to one of the major parties or administrations, whether President Obama’s or President Reagan’s, is not a big idea, since these histories are so packed with examples and counter-examples across the issues.

Horowitz was convincing in saying that this consistency is one explanation for the greater authenticity and trust attributed to Sanders, quoting Tad Devine, a Sander’s strategist, who defended sticking to the same message (I would say ‘idea’), by noting that this enhanced his credibility, “precisely because his speeches never seemed cooked up for the occasion”. Yes indeed, but I would add that it also reflects the fact that his messages are anchored in a big idea, and that is truly revolutionary at this time in American politics.

Notes

Jason Horowitz article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/26/us/politics/bernie-sanders-consistent-over-decades-in-his-call-for-revolution.html?_r=0

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