10 Ideas to Blow Up the Presidential Debate Format

20 November 2019

Let’s make debating, like governing, a team sport. Three candidates sit together on each side, for a total of six. There’s a yay-and-nay side, and they present and then debate specific motions. The motions should be ones on which the candidates have meaningful disagreements, but on which some of the candidates agree, so teams can be formed.

Have John Donvan host, as he does monthly for Intelligence Squared, a formal debate, on one motion at a time. The audience votes via app on the motion at the top of the debate, and again at the end. Some options (taken from recent Intelligence Squared debates): “Replace Private Insurance With Medicare for All” or “Turkey is an asset to NATO.” The team of candidates that has converted the most people wins.

What makes Donvan’s hourlong events such great sport and so instructive is that there’s a winner, and there’s a metric for choosing the winner. Candidates need not have training in formal debate to win. But the rules—and the importance of persuasion—would keep the debate from devolving into mere theatrics. As it happens, the spectacle would also be much more interesting, if subtler, than the chaotic pizzazz jams we usually see.