The two debate format has not worked
When was the last time you thought about what the referees do at a sporting event? Most likely, it was when they blew a call, or called some a penalty that you had never heard of. When the referees are doing their jobs well, we don’t notice that they are there; we focus on the players.
This is the problem with the two debate format that the Democratic Party created. During the recent debates, it was difficult not to focus on the moderators. Were they asking the same kinds of questions on the second night that they did on the first night? Were they trying to stir up conflict between the candidates? Even if it was a random draw, was it a good idea to make the first debate a battle between the Warren-Sanders team and a bunch of also-ran white guys? Was it intentional that the second debate was an encore performance of the Harris-Biden clash? What were the debate organizers and moderators thinking?
To be fair to CNN, it’s not as if the network had any real choice in the matter. It’s been well-documented that the Democratic National Committee has been bending over backwards this time around to be inclusive, to avoid the perception that they were playing favorites when scheduling the debates this year. The party set a low threshold for debate inclusion, and they sorted the candidates fairly randomly so that there wouldn’t be an “undercard” debate like the Republicans had in 2016.
Voter surveys tell us the public wants debates to be structured so that candidates present their positions and their differences in a civil manner. This is hard to achieve in any debate, and it is particularly challenging with nearly two dozen candidates. Candidates who have received little attention have an incentive to launch attacks on the frontrunners to simply get noticed.
For the past three years, I have worked with the National Institute for Civil Discourse and a team of academics to try to understand what makes for a “civil” debate. Civility in this sense doesn’t mean that candidates do not attack each other, or that sharp disagreements are not presented.
Among other things, a civil debate is one in which the candidates are all given a chance to present their substantive differences, and can do so honestly, without name calling or talking over one another.
While we found that much of the responsibility for engaging in a civil debate is in the hands of the candidates, the moderators also play a pivotal role in encouraging civil discourse. Moderators can ensure candidates get equal air time, and they can correct inaccuracies and call out candidates who make false statements.
One of the most important things that debate moderators can do, however, is to allow candidates to speak about the issues that matter most to them and ask questions that allow candidates to play up their strengths.
It’s not that the CNN moderators did badly in meeting these metrics. Despite Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) objections the first night that some questions were “Republican talking points,” all of the Democratic hopefuls had the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) spoke about climate change, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) spoke about war, Andrew Yang spoke about the robot apocalypse, Marianne Williamson got to be a little bit spiritual.
But the problem is, they did a much better job of this in the first debate than in the second, and the two-debate format made it impossible not to focus on the moderators. This created a clear contrast with night two, which quickly dissolved into a mess of half-baked health-care plans.
By the second night, the rules had taken center stage. Were the moderators going to ask the same questions, in roughly the same order? Who would they choose to play John Delaney on night two? And, were they a little more reluctant to cut candidates off when they exceeded that one-minute time limit? If so, was that fair to the first 10 candidates?
Instead of thinking about the candidates, it was as if the candidates were moving pieces, and the viewers became acutely aware of the rules of the game — almost to the point of distraction.
There’s an easy solution to this problem; some candidates will have to drop out of the race before we even get to the debate stage (literally), so that we can keep the debate to one evening. Before that happens, it’s worth noting that both parties have faced this dilemma; none of today’s Democratic presidential candidates nor the Republicans who challenged Trump four years ago have figured out how to master this two debate thing. Maybe we will get it right before 2024. Or perhaps fewer people will want to run to begin with?
Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.