Open to Debate Releases Study on Presidential Debates

June 20, 2024
Shore Fire Media

Everyone knows the presidential debates have gotten worse. A new study quantifies exactly how—and what can be done to fix them, starting with the first 2024 debate on June 27.

Find the full study at


The Open to Debate Foundation, in collaboration with researchers from the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University, has released a data-driven study on U.S. Presidential Debates called ‘Discourse Correction: What’s Wrong with the Presidential Debates, and How to Fix Them.’

To conduct the study, the research team watched every presidential debate that took place between 2004 and 2020 multiple times to quantify the successes and failures of the selected debate formats, how the debates have changed over time, and the value they bring to American voters. They developed specific metrics to assess how effective the moderators were at running smooth and respectful debates, how well the debates covered issues that voters cared about, and how the candidates behaved themselves.

They found that, over time, the presidential debates have grown less edifying and more confrontational. Moderators have increasingly struggled to run contests that are substantive, respectful, and actually informative to voters. Interruptions, personal attacks, and crosstalk has all increased dramatically as substantive discussion has decreased.

Drawing from this data, they identify changes that could make big improvements that benefit the candidates, voters, and democracy. Moderators need to be properly trained—and experience hosting TV news shows isn’t enough. They need to be empowered to mute microphones, cut debaters off, and not tolerate deflection or evasion. Debate formats should change, drawing from both traditional Oxford-style debate techniques and the Town Hall format, which lead to more substantive discussions.

See key findings and recommendations below, and find the complete study at


Key Findings:

  • Moderator Control:
    The study reveals a significant decline in the ability of moderators to control debates. Moderators went from losing control just once in 2004 to 58 times in 2020.
  • Interruptions:
    Just twenty years ago, interruptions on the presidential debate stage were exceedingly rare. So rare, there was only one across all three 2004 debates. But fast forward to 2020, and there were 76 instances in one debate alone.
  • Increase in Personal Attacks:
    There were only six before 2016. But between 2016 and 2020, there were more than 60 personal attacks between both sides.
  • Rising Crosstalk:
    Instances of crosstalk have also increased substantially, from one instance in the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry debate to 76 instances in the first Biden vs. Trump debate in 2020.
  • Topics Covered:
    Prior to 2016, six out of nine debates were devoted specifically to domestic or foreign policy. In 2016 and 2020, the debates were redesigned to address all policy areas. As a result, vital foreign policy and national security issues were glossed over. 11 out of 32 legislatively defined policy areas were not substantially discussed across all 14 debates.



  • Change Moderator Preparation Standards:
    Moderators need to be trained and prepared to enforce rules and given more tools to control candidates.
    Formal debate moderation requires a different set of skills than broadcast journalism.
  • Empower Moderators:
    In a debate, active listening and precision point/counterpoint arguments are fundamental to successful engagement. Moderators are not there to fact check the content but to enforce the rules.
    Moderators should not tolerate deflection or evasion (when a candidate doesn’t answer the question asked) or repetitive talking points.
    Moderators must ensure the arguments made by each candidate are addressed by the other consistently.
    Change Debate Formats:
    The debates need to be restructured with expert oversight to navigate complex arguments, hold both sides accountable for their claims, and frame each question fairly for both sides.
    Expertise in framing questions according to formal debate best practices should be used; not television broadcast standards which are designed for rapid fire, short segments.
    The contemporary Oxford-style format, which poses a question that candidates answer “yes” or “no” to, will create more structure and present more facts with uninterrupted opening remarks and cross-examination of arguments.
    Clearly defined, segmented topics elicit more specific responses from candidates and better inform voters.
    Provide debate questions ahead of time, allowing candidates to prepare with specificity
    Use survey tools to curate questions from voters. The Town Hall formats yielded better diversity of topics and covered what matters to Americans, not what drives ratings in the newsroom.
  • Implement Concrete Rules
    Microphones should automatically turn off when a candidate is over time, and should not be live to enable interruptions during speech times.
    Personal attacks and interruptions should result in a penalty that removes time from the candidate’s clock and gives it to the opponent.


Looking at battleground polls leading up to the 2024 election, it has become more critical than ever before for American voters to hear meaningful debates between our presidential candidates. By taking a data-driven look at what has done wrong with the presidential debates, the ‘Discourse Correction’ study underscores the critical role of these debates in American democracy and the urgent need for reforms. Implementing these recommendations, starting with the first debate this month, will ensure that debates remain a valuable tool for voters to understand the candidates’ policies and temperaments.



The Open to Debate Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that produces a weekly debate program and podcast broadcast to millions on 400+ NPR stations, dozens of digital networks. We promote informed, open, respectful, and civil dialogue around critical policy issues of the day and use debate to address a fundamental problem in America: the extreme polarization of our nation and our politics. As advocates for the balanced and free exchange of ideas, we are on a mission to safeguard the institution of debate from alarming trends unfolding in the public square, ranging from the deterioration of civil discourse; the proliferation of misinformation; and the erosion of public trust in our institutions.

Our work to address the quality of the presidential debates began in 2012, when we initiated a dialogue with the Commission on Presidential Debates to explore adopting more productive debate formats. In 2016, we took our campaign public with a petition on that garnered over sixty thousand signatures and with a simple message: it’s time to fix the presidential debates.

For more information on Open to Debate, please contact Ray Padgett ( or Mark Satlof ( at Shore Fire Media.