State of Emergency: Five Ways to Improve Presidential Debates
Everyone knows the debate format is broken. Let’s fix it.
By Dan Knuckey and Matt Herlihy
The reviews are in from this cycle’s first presidential debate, and for once, our country can all agree on something — it was an unmitigated disaster. Even a mainstream media anchor called the event “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” As he mixed his metaphors, many of us mixed our recovery cocktails.
It’s not only that the debate was bad television — although a pair of septuagenarian enemies cross-yelling for 90 minutes certainly qualifies. More importantly, it utterly failed in its objective. Ever since 1960’s Nixon–Kennedy matchups ushered the presidential debate into the television era, these events have aimed for a clear purpose: bringing voters a real-time, close-up view of the candidates to inform their choice. This one accomplished no such thing.
Sure, not every election cycle has delivered the substance and manners demonstrated by those candidates of yore. (And it’s rarely a good sign to feel nostalgia for Nixon.) But after Tuesday’s fiasco, it’s clear we need some updated ground rules to refocus on that original objective. Not many undecided voters remain, but anyone still on the fence deserves a clear picture of the contestants at hand.
So with limited time left before the final episodes of this troubled reality show, we offer five suggestions to design a more engaging experience for viewers — and ideally, a more effective tool for informing the electorate in the weeks that follow.
Control the microphone
If months of Zoom calls and e-learning have taught us anything, it’s the almighty power of the mute button. Should nothing else change in the debates to come, we must grant our moderators the ability to cut off a candidate’s microphone when speaking out of turn.
Rules only matter alongside proper enforcement, and responsible muting represents the kind of law and order that both parties can get behind. (Thankfully, early reports suggest the debate governing commission is considering immediate rule changes, including this one.)
Force a more rigid structure
Voters deserve clear information that’s easy to parse — we’ve got plenty on our minds these days. So let’s dial down the freeform sniping and settle on more rigorous constraints. And just as importantly, find stronger ways to ensure compliance.
With microphone muting in place, we can raise the odds that questions really get answered. As one possible scenario: Candidate 1 answers a moderator’s question without interruption. Candidate 2 then gets 30 seconds in response to specific points made previously. The candidates follow the same process in reverse.
This may seem familiar, given that the first debate was similarly planned — in principle. But since respectful pleas failed to keep the agenda on track, now only a buzzer will do. Let the moderator buzz to penalize any off-topic utterance, allow five seconds for the candidate to course-correct, and eliminate the rest of the turn if the speaker refuses to stay on point. (More good news: additional timing constraints are now also under consideration for the fall’s two remaining installments.)
Institute real-time fact checking
Pundits have been demanding fact checking in debates for decades, and its importance takes on even greater urgency today. Researching the veracity of a claim takes time and effort, however, and a verdict can be nuanced. But when a large body of evidence meets lightning-fast search capability, we should now expect a level of confidence akin to a referee on the field.
Neutral, campaign-approved experts make quick but informed decisions to identify when an untruth is spoken. After three such fouls in an answer, the guilty candidate loses 15 seconds from the next response. Five verified untruths cost a turn, and after 10 instances in one debate, a candidate fouls out. (Perhaps the candidate is then replaced by the vice presidential nominee for the broadcast’s duration. Or even more intriguingly, a spouse.)
Keep score and declare a victor
Debates and boxing may not offer a perfect analogy, but given the pugilism we’ve just witnessed, it’s no longer an unfair comparison. Just as a championship bout impanels three judges, so should future debates designate a trio of vetted undecided voters. They keep score per round — measuring both technical and emotional effectiveness — and keep the tally blind to candidates until the end. An objective winner is then announced.
Admittedly, human assessment may not yield fully scientific results. But measurable findings from real people should still carry more weight to voters than post-debate bloviating from your typical partisan pundit.
Throw in a wild card
In order to keep the experience fresh — and test the competitors’ ability to strategize on the spot — a surprise “wild card” rule should apply to each event. The rule is kept secret and only be revealed at the debate’s commencement.
Perhaps candidates get to ask their competitors a final question directly. Or maybe each contestant can phone a friend for one response. After all, no one should expect a 77-year-old to throw a complete game.
Speaking of the rituals of sport, let’s grant participants a timeout to confer with advisers and take a quick breather. This also gives the moderator an opportunity to recalibrate as necessary — a pause button that might have come in handy Tuesday night. And while we’re at it, why not give us viewers a break by incorporating a halftime show, complete with cheerleaders, fight songs and mascots?
(As important as entertainment value is for the purpose of civic engagement — and as terrific as Hamilton was — we still suggest leaving duels off the table.)
We’ll admit, these suggestions will not heal our cultural divides on their own. But since this program might be the one show everyone watches between now and the Super Bowl, we owe it to our future to seize the occasion and help voters make informed decisions. Otherwise, our current hot-mess dumpster-fire train wreck may well be unstoppable.