Presidential debates are broken — can they be fixed?

18 June 2024
Calder McHugh

BUILD BACK BETTER — The Biden campaign is out with a new ad letting fly at former President Donald Trump’s criminal convictions. Meanwhile, Trump is gathering allies at Mar-a-Lago to have informal “policy discussions.” Sean Hannity is loudly speculating on Fox News that Biden’s debate performance will be reminiscent of “the guy that we saw at the State of the Union … all hyped up, hyper-caffeinated, whatever ‘it’ is.”

Debate season is in the air. And with only two presidential debates this cycle, the CNN-hosted contest on June 27 will take on increased importance, with both candidates attempting to allay concerns about their age — not to mention trying to present a steadier hand than the guy standing next to him on stage.

But with both candidates assuredly gearing up for a mudslinging match, questions persist about the usefulness of modern debates: Do they really help voters make informed decisions? Or are they just theater that do little to draw contrasts between candidates? The first debate in 2020, between the same two candidates, was widely panned as one of the worst in history. And while their other 2020 debate drew more comparative praise, it was still rife with interruptions and snarky asides, providing little new information about the candidates.

new report out from the nonpartisan organization Open to Debate, and shared first with POLITICO Nightly, shows that our eyes are not deceiving us: debates have gotten materially worse in the last decade. Interruptions have skyrocketed, moderators have lost control and the formats of the debates have allowed candidates to dodge questions.

This year, the Biden and Trump campaigns ducked the Commission on Presidential Debates altogether, choosing instead to negotiate with each other and the networks directly. The result? Rules released this weekend by CNN that will give moderators more tools to maintain decorum, including the ability to mute candidates’ microphones. But the debate will also bow to some commercial interests, including two commercial breaks — and that makes Open to Debate’s CEO Clea Conner nervous.

To learn more about the results of their new report, and whether and how our debates can be fixed, Nightly spoke with Conner. This conversation has been edited.


What are the major reasons the debates have changed so much?

Both candidate decorum and information value have declined dramatically. Just twenty years ago, interruptions on the presidential debate stage were exceedingly rare. So rare, there was only one in 2004. But fast forward to 2020, and there were 76 instances in one debate alone. And personal attacks? There were only six before 2016. But between 2016 and 2020, there were more than 60 personal attacks between both sides. Not to mention viewers were exposed to less information over time, with only 20 of the 31 policy topics covered over the last twenty years.

Worst of all, moderators went from losing control once in 2004 to 58 times in 2020.


Is there a specific Trump effect here, given that he’s participated in the last two cycles of presidential debates?

The data clearly shows that interruptions, cross talk, and personal attacks dramatically increased in 2016 and rose again in 2020. But when you consider all the data inputs and look closely at the qualitative results, we aren’t dealing with a Trump effect as much as we are dealing with a debate defect. The underlying issues with formats, rules, balanced moderation and framing the issues fairly is what enabled so much chaos to unfold in real time.


What’s the importance of a good debate? Why should we tune in to hear one this year, when both candidates are familiar?

These debates are the one and only time during the electoral process to see both candidates together on stage. It’s the single opportunity voters have to witness them thinking on their feet, answering sharply framed questions, marshaling facts in support of their policies, and actually engaging with their opponent. The point of it all is to inform voters and give them the opportunity to think critically about both sides of the issues. That’s the ideal of democracy; and debate is our best shot at making that ideal a reality.


Is the problem the candidates running roughshod over the rules, or the moderators unable to enforce them?

We’ve learned that one thing debaters will always do is test the moderator’s boundaries to ultimately break the rules. In our own debate programs, debaters have tried every trick in the book, from reframing questions to evading them, talking over their opponent and repeating talking points over and over again. It is guaranteed that our presidential candidates will try the same. Could we demand they respect the established time limits? Answer the questions asked? Cite facts — real ones? And stop making personal attacks?

Sure, but rules don’t matter unless you have a moderator who is able to enforce them, and a format that empowers moderators to do it.


How should we fix the debates? What can moderators in particular do that they haven’t yet?

Here are some rules for the moderators that will prevent the debates from devolving into chaos:

  1. Penalize bad behavior. When one side attacks, interrupts, or speaks over the other, the other side should be awarded a time credit. At the end of the debate, the candidate with the most time left on the clock gets the last word. It incentivizes both sides to stay on point and on topic (and demonstrate much needed decorum in our discourse norms).
  2. Turn off the mic. Don’t let candidates go over their allotted time. If they do, mute the microphone. No exceptions.
  3. No “gotcha” questions. The role of the moderator is to keep the trains running on time and enforce a fair and level playing field for both sides. Not to debate the debaters, endorse partisan ideas, or derail the conversation with selective fact checking.
  4. Frame opening questions so they are answered with a yes or a no. In a real debate, the clearer the dichotomy, the sharper the arguments. Clearly stated positions give the moderator more to work with editorially and move the conversation forward.
  5. Call out evasions. Often debaters rely on talking points instead of responding to their opponent’s ideas, or the questions that were asked. Moderators need to call those fouls when they are out of bounds and enforce the rules — not the other way around.
  6. Forget fact-checking. Let reporters do their work as guardians of the fourth estate and hold our elected officials accountable for the facts they present.


With the Commission on Presidential Debates seemingly out of the picture, at least for now, what does the future of presidential debates look like?

They look like reality TV shows designed to drive ratings and sell ads. We are about to see the first presidential debate in American history with commercial breaks. That’s unprecedented, and it’s shameful. The introduction of commercial breaks will fundamentally change what makes a debate a debate, since the candidates will constantly be able to stop and regroup. Even though there will be only two commercial breaks this time, once we deem them acceptable it’s a classic slippery slope; how many will there be next time, and the time after that?

It will be incredibly disruptive and make it harder to control or yield quality arguments and exchanges. Their arguments will have to be shorter, truncated for the commercial clock, and will result in more outrageous interactions to bump ratings. So, until there is an independent nonpartisan broker running interference between the candidates and the networks, enforcing fair rules and framing issues that matter to voters (not journalists or advertisers), let’s call it what it is: pure political theater.