We need another presidential debate.
We need another presidential debate.
We have managed to survive two presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. During those two televised matchups between the candidates for the White House, and the one featuring their respective running mates, we learned a lot of things. We also came perilously close to having a serious discussion about the challenges facing our nation and the world. None of the three debates, however, produced a serious conversation about issues that matter most to young voters. And while there is one debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump still scheduled — on October 19th in Las Vegas — it is very unlikely that young voters, nor the issues they care most about, will be a priority for the candidates or the moderator.
Addressing issues that matter most to young voters should be a priority for both campaigns, as well as the media. Remember, there are an estimated 83 million millennials in this country — giving them equal representation in voting power to Baby Boomers. Recent polling shows that a disproportionately high number of this year’s still undecided voters are under age 35. And some of the states with the highest number of young voters (Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado) are also states that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump need to capture if they want to earn the required 270 electoral votes and win the presidency. In other words, young people will likely decide who wins on November 8th.
And so… I propose adding another debate. A fourth contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, specifically to address young voter issues, so this large, diverse, and influential voting bloc can hear directly from the candidates about their plans for the future. Every aspect of the debate would be designed around what interests eligible voters under the age of 35. If the rest of the country wants to watch, they are certainly welcome, but this debate would have a very specific purpose and focus.
At this late stage in the campaign, adding another debate could seem like a daunting task. But, the Commission on Presidential Debates has already crafted an agreed upon set of rules, built (and moved from venue to venue) a stage setup, and similar. A lot of the pieces are already in place. To insure that the additional debate would focus on young voters and the issue they care about, a few things will have to change.
I went through the information the Commission on Presidential Debates has shared about the rules and format for this year’s presidential debates — and updated them to reflect this particular challenge. Here are my notes:
Media partners. The Presidential debates are designed for television. They air on all the major networks, cable news stations, C-Span stream online through platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. That makes the debate accessible to everyone, but not necessarily interesting to young audiences. Therefor, the media partners for this debate would include: VICE, Mic, REVOLT, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, theSkimm, MTVNews, and potentially others. Moreover, how the debate is presented — how it was produced, what camera angles are offered, and similar would be different, to reflect the young audience’s viewing preferences and habits.
Timing. The current debates are scheduled for 90 minutes with no commercial interruption. Given that these issues have not been fully discussed, a debate focused on young voters would need to be longer — at least two hours — so that the full range of issues can be explored. But, given attention spans, the debate should also be broken up into segments — four sections, each with a two minute break between them… not for commercials, but so that context can be provide and fact-checking can be shared.
Stage setup: The stage setup should feature three different venues: the traditional two-podium setup, a living room configuration with comfortable couch-like chairs (not stools — nobody looks comfortable getting on/off a stool), and confessional — a close up opportunity for the candidates to speak directly to the audience, not to the audience or moderators. Over the course of the debate candidates will move between the setups, giving the audience of young voters a range of ways to view the candidates.
Oh, and most importantly, the words from the Declaration of Independence that are currently part of the backdrop behind the candidates will NOT appear anywhere. There is no need for eagles or patriotic bunting of any kind. Plain and simple, the focus needs to be on the candidates and their comments anyway.
Qualifications: The debate will only feature Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Why? Because like the existing debate rules, to qualify, the candidates must be constitutionally eligible, and:
- Appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral.
- Have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.
Now, I get that a lot of young voters are considering supporting a third party candidate — and neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein will qualify for the debates based on the criteria listed above. Considering that, I have added an additional option to consider:
- In the event that a candidate does not meet all three criteria, a group of eligible, registered voters under the age of 35 may submit a recommendation for an additional candidate to be included. A representative sample of young voters will then be surveyed about whether to include the candidate and a final decision will be made by the CPD with consideration as to the status of the campaign cycle. In other words, if a sufficient number of young, registered voters agree that the third party candidates need to be part of this debate, it will happen.
Moderators: The debate moderators thus far have been qualified — all very experienced and capable reporters, with excellent television pedigrees. However, I don’t think any of them have attracted much interest from young voters. We can do better.
For this debate, we would use three criteria to select its moderators: a) familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign — specifically those issues of interest to young voters (e.g. Medicare/Medicare experts need not apply); b) extensive experience in asking questions and creating compelling content (remember, engaging with younger audiences is different than other audiences); and c) an understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views, but ultimately seek to provide the target audience with answers and insights.
Who might be considered as moderators? Certainly, there are some people who work for the networks, cable news channels and major media publications that might be considered. The moderators don’t need to be young, but they need to be willing and able to think about how to engage with young voters, and help the candidates to do the same.
I wrote an article about this in early September and recommended a few options. For example, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver all have used faux news/humor shows to successfully turn mostly younger audiences into serious news consumers. Political commentators Glenn Beck and Bill Maher, a conservative and liberal respectively, have both attracted younger viewers to their shows on TV and online. Other names to consider might include: Kelly Evans, the co-anchor of Closing Bell on CNBC and Sway Calloway from MTV. If you move beyond the TV world, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the MacArthur Foundation Genius grant last year, Baratunde Thurston, a humorist and writer who was a producer for The Nightly Show on Comedy Central, or W. Kamau Bell, a sociopolitical stand-up comedian and host of the new CNN series United Shades of America. Both Angela Rye, a CNN political commentator and NPR political analyst, and Marc Lamont Hill, a BET News correspondent and CNN political commentator, are familiar faces to cable news viewers and have relevant expertise relating to the issues that will be debated as well. And there are many, many, many more that could qualify — and reflect the diversity of backgrounds and views represented among the large cohort of young voters.
Whoever gets chosen, the moderator(s) will have final decision making power over which questions are asked. But unlike previous debates, the topics, and even the specific questions, can be shared in advance if the moderator chooses. The goal here is not to play gotcha with the candidates, but rather to see what the candidates have to offer to young voters. Debates should never be about the moderators, they should be about serving the audience’s interests — so we can dispense with the political cat and mouse game.
Issues. Given the target audience for the debate, the issues that will be prioritized include (but are not limited to): the economy (and more specifically jobs, entrepreneurship, the creative economy, etc), education (and specifically college access, student loans, and early childhood education — for millennial parents who are thinking about their own kids), climate change, social justice and crime, and more. That doesn’t mean other issues won’t come up, but a lengthy discussion of taxes or policy in Syria (unless its specifically related to addressing poverty around the globe, or the future of the military — which impacts a lot of young people who serve) will not be tolerated.
Format: The debate will be split into nine chunks of time — three each taking place in one of the three setups mentioned above. The first three will be at podiums. The second three will be in the living room setting. The final three will be in the confessional. Each chunk of time will be focused on one issue or topic, to be selected by the moderator. There will be questions submitted by citizen participants, but the moderator(s) will ask all questions.
The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have one minute to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic. Once the discussion happens on a topic, the debate will move on to the next. Remember, the goal is to get as much discussion about the issues completed in a fixed amount of time.
An additional debate probably won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously consider the option — or at least recognize the need and value. A fourth contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, specifically to address young voter issues, would provide the largest, most diverse, and arguably most important segment of voters the opportunity to hear directly from the candidates about their plans for the future… and become more informed, and more motivated to participate in this election as a result.