Yes, The DNC's Debate Format Sucks, And There's An Easy Fix

from the DIY dept

Man, these presidential election years sure seem to last longer than a year, don't they? And, in our hyper-partisan world of never ending political stupidity, it's somewhat comforting that the one thing we can all agree on is that the debate formats recently have basically sucked out loud. The complaints about debate formats started with the 2016 RNC primaries, with its crowded field and strange varsity/JV debate night structure. Fast-forward to 2019 and the DNC's Democratic debates are being pilloried as well. In the latter case, the chief criticism appears to be that there is far too little substance discussed, with moderators for cable and OTA networks instead focusing on getting the candidates to clash in the most easy-to-soundbite fashion. Even from the major print media, you get takes such as:

Democrats woke up Thursday to find that the debate format they have agreed to is an unmitigated disaster designed to hype ratings (hence baiting the candidates to attack one another) but not to educate voters or really test candidates’ fitness for office.

Sure, getting rid of most of the field in September by raising the qualifications to 2 percent support in designated polls and 130,000 unique donors will help. If the threshold went up a percentage point each month, we might finally get to a manageable field in which candidates have more than one minute to spit out an answer and 30 seconds to rebut. However, this won’t solve all the problems with the current system

That's right, although it seems somewhat lost that the real problem here is identified in that opening paragraph. The system today is one in which the DNC and RNC partner with cable and OTA broadcasters to televise the debate. As part of that deal, those same broadcasters put their own news personalities in the chairs of moderators. This creates a pretty obvious conflict of interest. The debates is supposed to be a method through which small-D democratic process functions: voters are introduced to candidates they may not previously have been aware of, they learn those candidates' positions, and all of this is reflected in public polling to inform those candidates as to whether they should stay in the race or not. This process winnows the field down to a functional choice between select candidates.

But this isn't what happens. Instead, the moderators, many of which host their own news programs, push the preferred process of the founding fathers to the side and instead adopt the ideals of the founder of the Maury Pauvich Show. Candidates are incentivized both in the coverage and by the time-restrictions on responses to questions to spit out sound-bite-y quips rather than debate true policy. And there is a pretty simple way to change the misalignment of incentives in all of this: the DNC should stream and broadcast the debate itself and then license network and cable TV providers to rebroadcast it.

Thanks to the internet and the rise of quality equipment with which to stream stuff, the parties no longer need to dole out broadcast partnerships for their debates. Instead, the parties can handle all of this themselves and stream the debates either on their own sites, or via platforms like Facebook or YouTube. TV partners can then be allowed to re-transmit that, which they'll absolutely want to do. If they somehow do not, the stream will be available on the internet.

This move would do several things. First, it would end the insanity that is DMCA notices and platform bans that happen when people re-transmit the broadcast of a TV partner on streaming sites. The idea that a major party debate should be locked up behind copyright notices surely would make the founding fathers shit themselves. And, yet, that's what's happening today.

More importantly, it would leave moderator seats vacant for those with actual expertise on the topics to be discussed. Those moderators would also not be incentivized to generate soundbites or easy-to-repackage quips for cable news broadcasts. Literally everything would be better and there is no longer a technological or cost barrier to do all of this.

So, RNC and DNC: when the campaigns start for 2024, which will likely start roughly ten minutes after the 2020 election, consider this your DIY project.

Filed Under: debate, dnc, election, politics, primaries


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 1:56am

    'Now let's you and him/her fight...'

    A proper moderator to a debate should be neutral, there to keep the agreed upon structure of the debate intact and move things back to that when focus wanders into irrelevant areas. Having a moderator with a vested interest in seeing things get as 'exciting' as possible, with those involved at each other's throats benefits only those not involved, presenting a conflict of interest so vast that you'd think the two parties would have realized it by now.

    Honesty with the current structure of 'debates' the two political parties might as well sponsor each others' debates, given having candidates within a party ripping each other apart on national tv is great for the party not currently involved in the debacle, working to undermine the other party with much less work than doing it themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      fairuse (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 4:32am

      Re: 'Now let's you and him/her fight...'

      The easy solution is don't schedule in broadcast networks prime time - stream live and cut the ratings out, advertisement out, CSPAN in for live.

      These days there is no excuse to make a reality show out of debates.

      I never watch because there is 000 useful information - Just dress down suits survivor.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 7 Aug 2019 @ 4:33am

    Sorry, wrong.

    More importantly, it would leave moderator seats vacant for those with actual expertise on the topics to be discussed. Those moderators would also not be incentivized to generate soundbites or easy-to-repackage quips for cable news broadcasts. Literally everything would be better and there is no longer a technological or cost barrier to do all of this.

    You are misunderstanding what this is about. The purpose of primaries is not to find the most qualified candidate for serving as president but to find the most likely candidate for winning the election.

    You write:

    Candidates are incentivized both in the coverage and by the time-restrictions on responses to questions to spit out sound-bite-y quips rather than debate true policy.

    but there is no point in public debates to focus on skills that will not find reflection on the ballot because they can be evaluated only by experts instead of the average voter.

    The whole idea of the primaries revolves around looking good rather than being good. And that's because the election is decided by looking good rather than being good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 5:03am

      The whole idea of the primaries revolves around looking good rather than being good. And that's because the election is decided by looking good rather than being good.

      And maybe it’s time we changed that. Maybe it’s time we focused less on the soundbytes or who wore what and more on the substance of a candidate’s policy ideas.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:39am

        Re:

        For better or worse, democratic elections are decided by voters. If you want more qualified decisions, you need more qualified voters. The electoral college was one idea to achieve that, but it's probably time to admit that the idea does not work when a party system gets involved.

        No, the only feasible way is to get more qualified voters by considering education a national duty rather than personal luxury.

        In a way, democracy with an uneducated votership is putting the cart before the horse and the wrong way to go about things. It's just that history has shown that getting the horse to move in any other manner somehow is guaranteed to end up with the horse clawing its hooves into the ground and sitting tight.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Aug 2019 @ 5:11am

      Re: Sorry, wrong.

      I think removing the crowd would be the best reform to the debate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 9:19am

      Re: Sorry, wrong.

      You are misunderstanding what this is about. The purpose of primaries is not to find the most qualified candidate for serving as president but to find the most likely candidate for winning the election.

      The problem is that our ability to evaluate "electability" is pretty much nonexistent.

      In 2016, the Democrats chose the candidate most people thought was most electable, and the Republicans chose the candidate most people thought was least electable. The "least-electable" candidate turned out to be more electable, seeing as he's the one who was actually elected.

      People don't have a great record at evaluating who can win an election. I think it would be much wiser to recognize that we're not very good at making those evaluations, and instead go with the candidate we actually agree with. (Obviously there are other considerations; if the primary candidate you most agree with is polling at 2% and there's also a candidate you somewhat agree with who's polling at 47%, you're probably better off voting for the latter.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        morganwick (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:34pm

        Re: Re: Sorry, wrong.

        The old standard of "electability" - that the candidate that pivots to the center, has firm ideas and plans and a better grasp of the issues, and offends as few people as possible wins - turned out to be badly wrong. But since every candidate before Trump did that to some degree or another, that doesn't say much about our ability to evaluate electability; certainly the person you responded to has some idea of how to do it that would incorporate Trump. There are certainly some key clues: the more charismatic candidate has won every presidential election since at least 1980, and when half the electorate doesn't vote and those that do can vote for exactly one candidate in the general election, energizing and turning out your base while demonizing the other guy is a viable strategy.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 8 Aug 2019 @ 7:49am

          Re: Re: Re: Sorry, wrong.

          I don't know that I'd call HW "charismatic", even in comparison to Dukakis. And considering the 2000 election in any kind of trend line is fraught given its particulars (it was decided by a small number of votes in a single state, the initial count was upheld by a 5-4 partisan majority in the Supreme Court, and while there were multiple after-the-fact recounts that reached different conclusions, the most thorough, statewide efforts all concluded that Gore received more votes in Florida after all).

          I'd agree that charisma is a key factor, but there are other key factors too.

          And when people say Biden is the most electable candidate, I don't think they're talking about charisma. At least, not his charisma.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonmylous, 7 Aug 2019 @ 5:10am

    Sensationalism Sells

    The democratic process has done nothing but get worse since Obama first ran. And this is merely a symptom of it. Its all pomp and circumstance now, no substance. These debates make that very clear. The DNC "gave up" control to the networks in exchange for money, because that is all that is important to them now. They have no incentive to run the debates themselves and resell broadcast rights, the networks know that'd be boring and ratings would suck.

    Sensationalism sells. I actually find it weird the Republicans aren't doing the same.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 5:24am

      Did…did you not see who the Republican candidate for POTUS was in 2016?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:14am

      Re: Sensationalism Sells

      "Sensationalism sells. I actually find it weird the Republicans aren't doing the same"

      The party whose nomination process ended up selecting a self-aggrandising gameshow host, whose most famous soundbites were about sexually assaulting women, calling Mexicans rapists and telling an opponent that his service didn't count because he was captured aren't using sensationalism?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      morganwick (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:36pm

      Re: Sensationalism Sells

      The only way I can figure that "the Republicans aren't doing the same" is that they aren't doing the same this year, which might have something to do with having an incumbent they don't want to legitimize opposition to that in any case has no hope of unseating him. If anything, Democrats' stubborn insistence on substance means they haven't embraced sensationalism nearly as much as Republicans.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 5:28am

    The party's National Committees cannot be trusted either

    The party's National Committees cannot be trusted any more than the broadcast networks. Giving the party's the ability to decide the format and people will only give them even more power to push their preferences forward. The problem is not that the debate formats are dreadful, the problem is the debates themselves.

    The notion of a debate to test and expose a candidate is outdated since shortly after the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Given the easy ability to communicate and share information there is no need for a debate. The problem is with a system that rewards candidate who do not provide information and more details. Instead we get soundbites and empty spectacle.

    We need something better than the current first past the post system that will allow for a variety of candidates and will reward them for being more open to the electorate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:04am

    Make them debate naked. That’ll thin the herd.
    I’ll see myself out now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 6:42am

    Campaign promises...NOT

    The problem I have with these staged infomercials is that nothing any candidate says now will be relevant when/if they achieve office. There is nothing to hold them to whatever positions they espouse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 9:14am

      Re: Campaign promises...NOT

      Haha, "Not." Like Wayne's World. I remember Wayne's World.

      Typically, the mechanism by which candidates are held to account for achieving what they promised is a reelection campaign four years later.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 9:42am

        Re: Re: Campaign promises...NOT

        Which makes the lies told during this campaign (assuming that the elected fail to live up to their promises during their tenure) what...misdirection, hopeful wishes, statements expressing ignorance of reality? How is that acceptable?

        I want my President to be honest and effective, from the moment the candidacy is announced to the inauguration of their replacement. Unfortunately playing politics is still a part of our system, but I don't believe government should behave purely for political gain, but in the interest of us, the people they represent.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 1:11pm

          Re: Re: Re: Campaign promises...NOT

          Which makes the lies told during this campaign (assuming that the elected fail to live up to their promises during their tenure) what...misdirection, hopeful wishes, statements expressing ignorance of reality? How is that acceptable?

          That depends on the statement, who's making it, and what their intentions are. You're talking about "broken campaign promises" like they're some sort of monolithic thing. That's an unhelpful generalization.

          Sometimes, politicians say they're going to do something, and they absolutely intend to do it but then hit an unexpected wall. For example, when Obama said he was going to close Guantanamo Bay, I think he had every intention of doing so, and didn't expect his own party to refuse to go along with his plan. You can call that a "hopeful wish" or a "statement expressing ignorance of reality" if you like, but I don't think it was misdirection.

          Other times, politicians change their minds. To once again use Obama as an example, I think he probably meant all the things he said in 2008 about dismantling Bush's surveillance apparatus -- but once he got into office and talked to the three-letter agencies, they convinced him that we really needed those surveillance programs, and he backed down. I'm not excusing this; it's a major reason I didn't vote for him in 2012. But it happens.

          Sometimes, candidates make statements that are aspirational; they talk about policy proposals that are going to be hard to pass but which they believe are worthwhile. When Kennedy said we were going to land on the moon by the end of the decade, he couldn't be certain we'd be able to do it; no one could. But he, and, later, Johnson and Nixon (and their respective congresses), devoted the resources to making it happen. It wasn't a guarantee, but it was an ambitious promise that Kennedy's successors managed to keep. If politicians only ever promise modest goals that they know are possible to achieve, then we're never going to see any significant changes. Are you sure that's really what you want?

          Sometimes, candidates do cynically claim they're going to do something they have no intention of doing, just because it's an applause line. But sometimes, when they say they're going to do something, it's aspirational. And in most cases, it's not up to them to do all by themselves.

          Some campaign promises are made in bad faith. Some are made in good faith but run up against impossible resistance. And some are aspirational rallying cries that any reasonable person would recognize are not actually guarantees. If, for example, one of the Democrats currently proposing universal healthcare takes office with a Republican Senate, and the bill never goes to the Senate floor, do you blame the president for making an impossible promise, blame the opposition party for preventing that promise from happening, or some combination of both?

          In the end, it's up to each individual eligible voter to make that decision for themselves and vote accordingly, or not. What you or I may consider an unforgivable violation, other voters may not. That's democracy. Sometimes someone you believe is an untrustworthy bastard gets elected.

          A lot of the time.

          I want my President to be honest and effective, from the moment the candidacy is announced to the inauguration of their replacement.

          I think that, to some extent, it's incumbent on you to understand what any individual politician actually has the power to do all by themselves, and that when they say "I will do x" they probably mean that they will sponsor legislation to do x but that laws don't actually get passed without getting to the floor of the Senate and House (which usually means passing a filibuster in the former), getting a majority of the vote, and either getting signed by the president or vetoed and overridden by a supermajority.

          Of course, if the politician, once elected, never actually sponsors a bill to do x, and that's the reason you voted for them, then you have a good reason not to vote for them again.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 12:20pm

        Nice job if you can get it

        Which, as jobs go, makes politics rather uniquely an outlier. In basically any other job if you don't do what you said you could/would do(or do things you definitely shouldn't be doing) you get fired then, you don't keep the job until it comes time to maybe hire you again.

        While there are reasons to have it that way(constantly shuffling politicians for making unpopular but good decisions and/or saying the 'wrong' thing would make getting anything done a nightmare), it most certainly does have it's downsides.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 1:14pm

          Re: Nice job if you can get it

          There are mechanisms for removing politicians from office before their term is up. It's just that, in America's federal government, those mechanisms are prohibitively difficult to successfully execute.

          If you'd asked me a few years ago, I would have said that parliamentary democracies, with their ability to call confidence votes and snap elections, are a superior system. Watching the UK over the past few years, I'm a lot less inclined to think so.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Aug 2019 @ 7:01am

    "Instead, the parties can handle all of this themselves and stream the debates either on their own sites, or via platforms like Facebook or YouTube."

    I could be mistaken, never had any luck myself, but I believe watching something on facebook requires membership. That isn't an option.

    Does YouTube do IP address blocking?

    I think a Government site is needed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ambrellite, 7 Aug 2019 @ 8:43am

    Missing the point

    Including the broadcast networks in the debates is part of the system of trading beneficial coverage in exchange for access to candidates and advertising dollars. Candidates (not voters) benefit from sensationalism, and laundering their messaging through the national media is an effective way to set the terms of national conversation.

    For either national party to run its own debates and license the broadcast rights would be a thumb in the eye of the media companies they rely on, and an open invitation for the networks to tilt coverage toward the other party. It's a prisoner's dilemma that reflects one of the most dangerous forms of regulatory capture: that of media companies over the apparatus of public accountability.

    If our media landscape were competitive, as it once was, the debates would likely be run by the national parties or by neutral third parties, as they once were.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 9:13am

    Let's be real, the debates sucked when Jim Lehrer was moderating them, too.

    Putting cable news hosts in charge is a bad idea, but the problems with the debates are a lot bigger than that.

    Moving the debates away from cable news and on to a more neutral platform might fix the problem of moderators trying to get the best soundbite, but it wouldn't fix the problem of candidates trying to get the best soundbite. The plain truth is, most people don't watch the debates; insofar as they hear about the debates at all, they see the highlights on the evening news, the late-night shows, or clips on sites like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook. And as long as audiences are getting their information on the debates secondhand, that's going to be filtered down through a selection mechanism that favors a "highlight reel" approach that favors flash over substance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Aug 2019 @ 10:14am

    1. Make each forge their own knife in 6 hours.
    2. Get them to fight each other.
    3. Shoot the winner.

    WIN-WIN for everyone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Aug 2019 @ 12:17pm

      Re:

      You've described the current process well.

      Pre-select the DNC candidate. Put everyone else who challenges that undeclared pre-selection on stage to fight eachother.

      Media shoots whomever performed best. Character executing each in turn until the pre-selected candidate is the last one standing.

      Schedule more events if any need to be shot again. Media watches for any quote that can be cut down then reported out of context in the more horrific way possible.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 12:23pm

    WOW..

    ESPN..
    And create their OWN channel for federal broadcast on Cable/TV/SAT..
    Then Let them REALLY debate.
    Problem I see, is we have over 1 year before anything matters.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Oninoshiko (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 9:47pm

    " the DNC should stream and broadcast the debate itself and then license network and cable TV providers to rebroadcast it. "

    NO! No, no no no no.

    They should run the debate, stream it, declaring there is no licenses, partners, or copyright on the stream. Make it public domain.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Federico (profile), 8 Aug 2019 @ 12:11am

    There is some impact

    These debates are just a way to test which candidates work best on TV. The exposure does seem to have an impact:
    https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/polls-since-the-second-debate-show-kamala-harris-slippi ng/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Aug 2019 @ 12:20pm

    Millions of Americans who viewed CNN as authoritative in 2016 now say they no longer do. The current debate framework is akin to a Weekly World News hosted event.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Aug 2019 @ 1:28pm

    It's only been this way for 30 years...

    From 1988: "It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions."

    https://www.lwv.org/newsroom/press-releases/league-refuses-help-perpetrate-fraud

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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