Friday night, amid the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses chaos, seven of the top presidential candidates will again take the stage for a debate in New Hampshire. During and immediately following the debate, media outlets and pundits will no doubt offer their hot takes and instant analysis of the “winners.” In the days following, much will be made of interactions between Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. Two more debates are scheduled this month, but as they devolve further and further into a circus, usefulness of debates is questionable at best.
Unsurprisingly, many viewers walk away from these debates with no idea who the best candidate is or what their individual beliefs or strengths are. Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vented her frustration. In an Instagram story , she said she prefers “to engage ideas more deeply and at length.” She continued, “I personally haven’t found these TV debates super informative or helpful, aside from giving people clips to post on social the week after.”
While televised debates have helped define many of our nation’s elections since they began airing in 1960, they’ve become less and less useful as a tool to understand candidates’ policy positions. We need to reexamine their format in our new digital age, where more news breaks on Twitter than TV and young people are talking about politics on Tik Tok .
The way we set up these debates has allowed them to devolve from calm, civilized debates over important political issues  into a competition to see who can walk away with the best “viral moment.” The public gets to see the candidates and hear their well-practiced talking points, but that’s about it. The substance of the candidates’ policies are hard to determine, even if you watch the whole debate. To be well-informed on where each candidate stands on the day’s most pressing issues, you would need to do some serious Google searches on your own.
Unfortunately, most people don’t have the time or patience to do this type of research. On a daily basis, your average citizen is busy dropping their kids off at school, working nine-to-five jobs outside the Beltway bubble, and worrying about commuter traffic and what to make for dinner. The last thing they want to do at the end of the day is wade through policy proposals.
We need to change the format of these debates to allow for longer conversations and one-on-one interactions. Doing so will motivate candidates to speak with more depth about what they believe and will push us away from the performative air that many of these debates have taken on.
The debates can be restructured in several ways to achieve these results.
Occasionally, a presidential candidate will be featured in a one-on-one interview  on the likes of 60 Minutes or NBC Nightly News. These interviews air during prime time and offer a golden opportunity for candidates to talk at length about their policy ideas. Creating a standard format for these interviews and inviting as many (serious) candidates as possible to take part in them would be an excellent way for the public to get to know the candidates better. A given segment or even an hour-long special could cover either one issue or a set of related issues. The interviewer should, of course, be someone who is as objective and knowledgeable as possible about the issues selected.
Toward the end of the presidential races, the party nominees and their chosen running mates are given the chance to debate each other one-on-one. This provides an excellent chance for the public to hear more from the nominees, but it would also be a useful format to deploy at the beginning stages of the race. Once the pool of candidates reaches a reasonable number, holding a series of one-on-one debates would offer interesting contrasts and conversations for the public to watch and consider. A potential format is the 1948 presidential primary debate  between New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, during which there was a 20-minute opening statement from each candidate, an eight-minute rebuttal, and a focus on one specific topic.
Town hall-style forums are also a useful format that can help the public learn more about each candidate. CNN has aired several of them on topics such as climate change and LGBTQ issues. These town halls have suffered low ratings , but their content has been helpful to the voters who tune in. A fresh take on the format may help attract more viewers.
Shortening the segments or pairing candidates with another famous person or subject matter expert could make the format more appealing. TV networks don’t have to be the only ones hosting town halls — with nearly everyone having access to the internet and social media, it would be quite easy for a newspaper or other media outlet to host town halls and broadcast them live on the internet for free.
Citizens have a duty to pay attention to elections, but candidates and media outlets also have a duty to make doing so as easy as possible. Instead of creating an environment that encourages rehearsed talking points, viral clips, and clap backs, let’s push our presidential candidates to educate us on what they really believe so that we end up with the right candidate instead of the one with the most Twitter followers.
- “Instagram story”: https://twitter.com/annmphelan/status/1217399101043572737/photo/1
- “Tik Tok”: https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiktok-wants-to-stay-politics-free-that-could-be-tough-in-2020-11578225601
- “calm, civilized debates over important political issues”: https://www.nbcnews.com/video/the-evolution-of-presidential-debates-770205763673
- “one-on-one interview”: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/joe-biden-interview-full-transcript-watch-video-norah-odonnell-60-minutes-exclusive-2019-10-27/
- “1948 presidential primary debate”: https://www.debates.org/debate-history/1948-debate/
- “low ratings”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/cnn-loves-hosting-democratic-candidates-in-town-halls-viewers-arent-returning-the-affection/2019/05/13/c5e9682e-75a4-11e9-b3f5-5673edf2d127_story.html