It should be plainly obvious to all Americans who watched last night’s debate, and every previous debate so far this year, that the debate format is badly broken and in need of reform. The evidence for this is that these debates have had almost no discernible effect on the polls. The only performances that have had any significant effect on a candidate’s standing were Senator Harris’ early slam dunk takedown of Biden during the second debate and Beto Orourke’s meek performances throughout the first 5 debates. But Harris’ rise in the polls was short-lived and Beto failed to gain traction after starting off as one of CNN’s top picks at the end of 2018. Warren had a bad moment during the 5th debate when she failed to adequately explain how she would fund her Medicare for All plan. That caused her to slide in the polls over the next few weeks. But other than these three instances, no other candidates have had much benefit or injury from their performances during the debates. Sure, Biden has had his stumbles and Klobuchar has made modest gains following her debate performances. But their movements in the polls are not so easy to tie directly to the debates. Biden has gaffes both on and off of the debate stage, and he still leads in the polls. Klobuchar had gained name recognition from the debates, but it is her appeal to voters on the campaign trail that seems to have more the lasting impact on her candidacy. With these considerations in mind, a major question after last night’s debate is whether these debates are really relevant any more. If nothing happens during the debates that has a significant long term impact on voter’s sentiments about the candidates, then what’s the point of even having them in the first place?
Last night the debate was by turns tense, boring, funny, awkward, heated, and cringy. But was it informative? Did the audience learn anything new about the candidates that they didn’t already know from previous debates? No. Voters who watched the previous debates learned nothing new about the major contenders. Steyer had a few good moments where he was able claim credit for the impeachment of the president the day before, but the rest of the candidates didn’t say much that would change astute viewer’s minds. The only people who may have learned something new were liberals who were just tuning in for the first time. Informing those new viewers is a significant consideration, to be sure, but that brings up the closely related question to all of this: are these debates really the right way to inform the voting populace about who the candidates are?
The efficacy of the debates are questioned more frequently these days because they seem to be so inadequate to the task of informing voters. They seem designed more for entertainment. There is definitely something to be said for all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds them. After all, Americans have very short attention spans. A glittery stage, triumphant music, candidates shouting at each other, pointed rebukes by moderators - it all helps to ramp up the entertainment value of the spectacle. But if entertainment is the purpose, then why not just send all of the candidates through the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course and see who survives? It would be far more entertaining to see Bernie Sanders traverse a balancing beam, or Amy Klobuchar deftly ascend the high wall, or Warren swing around on the monkey bars than to watch any of these candidates fire off silly little quips at each other about healthcare or tax policy. If the purpose is to entertain, then the debates are not serving their purpose very well.
What Americans need and deserve is a debate format that allows for a fully informative conversation to play out in real-time. As it currently stands, each of the 2-hour debates are filled with mostly forgettable exchanges of platitudes and populist rhetoric, references to personal life details and disingenuous attacks on opponents that are based more on purposeful misinterpretations of an opponent’s positions than genuine discussions of policy. As a result, out of the full 2-hours, only around 5 minutes contain any noteworthy interactions, and most of these are not even policy related. The 5 minutes that the media ends up chopping together for their sounds bites amounts to awkward jokes that fall flat, such as when Sanders randomly interjected that he was a white man, or lukewarm quips, such as when Buttigieg said to Warren, “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.” Does it matter that Buttigieg said this in response to an attack from Warren accusing him of schmoozing with wealthy donors in a wine cafe? Perhaps in absolute terms, yes, but the wine cave detail will probably not have any long-lasting effect on Buttigieg’s candidacy. It might stick with some Iowa voters, but will Americans remember it in by the time the Iowa caucus comes around a month from now? Probably not.
If the debate format is not reformed, then Americans will continue to form their opinions about potential presidents based on shoddy half-truths and outrageous outbursts in moments when they are purposefully provoked to display their worst sides. The current format is designed to create moments that no president will ever face in their time in office. These debates are nothing like what the candidates will experience in the oval office. Why would we want to judge candidates based on situations that no national leader would ever face? Wouldn’t it make more sense to find out what they would be like as a leader or as a thinker when they are not being heckled and accused on live TV in front of millions of antagonistic viewers? What good can come of putting these candidates through a process that is designed to produce disqualifying gotcha moments akin to the famous Dean scream?
Instead, it would make much more sense to tone down the pomp and circumstance, extend the amount of time each candidate is allotted to answer questions, and focus the questions much more closely on policy positions that will give insights into how they would steer the country. Here is one proposal: instead of 6 or more 2-hour debates that cover the same territory over and over again, set up 3 debates that are 5 hours long during which candidates are guaranteed 30 minutes each to answer questions on between one and three topics. The idea here would be to give each candidate as much time as they would need to answer each question adequately. By allowing each candidate to process the question, explain their thinking and assert their conclusion in a longer format debate, voters would be able to get a clear picture of what each candidate actually believes and how each candidate thinks through situations. Such a format would also quickly illuminate the candidates who have not done their homework to form robust opinions. It would also give voters a chance to focus on the details instead of watching only for the gotcha moments. How can a public become informed unless the candidates are given enough time to inform them? Insofar as democracy functions best when a public is informed, long format debates are what democracy requires.