July 6, 2017 37th and O

The Debate is Over: It’s Time for Change


by Team Rebecca: Catherine Lyons, Zach Oschin, Poonam Ravindranath, Meredith Kirby, and Beth Cunniff

*This is one in a series of "Hackathon" projects that Student Strategy Team members put together throughout the course of the 2016-2017 school year.                                          

The Problem: With the advent of technological innovations and social media, we see an opportunity to reform elements of the Presidential debates. The 2016 election cycle highlighted areas for improvement, and opportunities for growth with the current debate format.

The Solution: In order for the debates to truly serve their purpose as a forum for the U.S. electorate to learn about the policies, plans and poise of the candidates, we recommend the Commission on Presidential Debates consider the following proposals, listed in no particular order.

Date: December 2, 2016

Exposition

The U.S. Presidential debates are an influential forum for candidates to discuss their platforms and earn the votes of the American electorate. The Presidential and Vice Presidential debates offer a rare opportunity for millions of Americans to witness how the candidates interact with each other, with voters, and with members of the media. The debates are a true test of the Presidential nature of a candidate.

Methodology:

Our team conducted extensive research into the presidential debates and the Commission, hosted several discussion forums on the topic, and interviewed several members of the media and political establishment, including:

● Rebecca Sinderbrand, Political Editor, The Washington Post

● Chris Cillizza, Reporter, The Washington Post/The Fix

● Scott Mulhauser, former Deputy Chief of Staff, Vice President Joe Biden

● Governor Martin O’Malley, former Governor of Maryland and Presidential candidate

Areas for Reform:

Based on this research, we have targeted several facets of the debates as areas for reform.

1. The Commission on Presidential Debates is run by the two major parties, and has been since its inception.

2. The CPD operates with no public oversight. Its ability to run the debates in a way that is best for the education of American voters is compromised by its bipartisan control.

3. In particular, the partisan control of the CPD and the behind-closed-doors negotiations it conducts with members of the two major parties has led to the exclusion of serious and popular candidates from third parties, and the exclusion of many vital issues and questions from the debates.

4. The audience is managed and filled by both candidates. Audience reaction and interaction often encourage candidates to use ‘catchphrase’ tactics and talking points.

Proposed Solutions:

In order for the debates to truly serve their purpose as a forum for the U.S. electorate to learn about the policies, plans and poise of the candidates, we recommend the Commission on Presidential Debates consider the following proposals, listed in no particular order.

1. Remove the two major parties from the debate planning process, and eliminate the negotiations that take place between the CPD and the two campaigns. The CPD and its membership should decide on the debate format and rules without input from the parties or candidates. This will ensure fairness and lessen the political back-and-forth that often makes the news before the candidates even take the debate stage.

a. We recommend three Presidential debates and one Vice Presidential debate.

b. We also recommend the debates be on a weeknight, in prime time, to facilitate the highest amount of viewership as possible.

2. Vary the formats of the debates to include more interaction with voters. The debates should grant viewers an opportunity not only to see how candidates interact with members of the media, but also with voters. By including more town hall-style formats or interjecting questions from voters along with moderator questions, candidates have more opportunities to show how they respond to and interact with members of the American electorate.

a. Standardize the format for the Vice Presidential debate: Currently, VP debates are often conducted at a round table with the candidates sitting down with the moderator. We encourage the standardization of the VP debate format to be consistent with the Presidential debates. Either have them standing at podiums or interacting in a town hall debate.

3. Include questions from the audience and/or undecided voters. Social media and technology have made it feasible to include questions from voters in debate forums through pre-recorded Facebook videos, or questions submitted through Twitter, as we saw in some of the primary debates. Just as varying the format of the debates allows the audience an opportunity to see how candidates interact with voters, including more questions from undecided voters will have the same effect. It will also ensure that issues important to Americans will be included in these forums.

4. Decide debate topics with input from a group of voters. There is a consensus that we often do not hear the candidates address the issues that are important to voters across the U.S. When deciding the topics of the Presidential debates, we encourage the CPD to solicit input from voters via social media, focus groups, mail and email, and determine which issues rise to the top.

5. Comprise the audience of undecided voters instead campaign supporters. We believe that this will shift the candidates’ dialogues and the tenor of the room. Often we hear audiences reacting to what the candidates say onstage, and this is an important part of the political discourse. In fact, we recommend that the audience be allowed to react more than they are currently allowed. However, these reactions are usually very partisan due to the makeup of the room. Filling the room with undecided voters, alongside the family members of the candidates, will contribute to lessening the partisanship of these forums.

6. Incorporate a live fact checking component into the debates. We now have the technology to include live fact checking in the debate broadcast. The CPD should consider the best way to better incorporate fact checking into the debates. This could also include the allowance of a team of fact checkers who can relay information to the moderator in real time during the debate performance. In conclusion, we hope the Commission on Presidential Debates will consider our recommendations to modernize and improve the current debate forums that are so integral to our democratic process.

The Student Strategy Team of Catherine Lyons, Zach Oschin, Poonam Ravindranath, Meredith Kirby, and Beth Cunniff were advised by Rebecca Sinderbrand, Deputy National Political Editor, The Washington Post; Managing Editor, The Washington Post’s “The Fix”, and GU Politics Fall 2016 Fellow.

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