- - Thursday, February 18, 2016


Having reviewed this debate-heavy presidential election cycle for a number of media sources, I would like to offer just a few major observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the debates and coverage of debates qua politically significant and valuable enterprises.

Who should be allowed to participate? For the Republican debates there has often been poll-based, two-tiered system, allowing participants in an early undercard, while with some arbitrary dividing point allowing others to be in the main event. Moreover, the seating in the debates has also been determined by the polling results, with center stage being accorded to those who have the highest numbers in whatever polls are deemed to be most accurate. In addition, the debates have often used polling leaders as a touchstone for questions, such as Donald Trump.

This method of determining who may participate and in what hierarchy loads debates and gives disproportionate time to the most provocative candidates, thus also affecting the relative content of the debates on personality. Polling is quite an inexact tool. One only has to look at some conspicuous examples: Mitt Romney’s internal polls led him to believe that he was going to win in 2012 — just the opposite of the 2014 Maryland gubernatorial election in which Larry Hogan’s internal polls showed him winning, while public polls incorrectly predicted he would lose; Barack Obama supporters worried in 2008 that polls would inflate his support, while racially prejudiced voters would vote contrary to what they said would be their vote; and Eric Cantor’s double digit lead in Virginia’s 2014 primary was so wrong as to embarrass pollsters, until the next election by which most everyone had forgotten the debacle. Errors in polling are legion.

Still, there may be no alternative to using polling results in some capacity to determine who will participate in debates, but this criterion should be minimized and not be allowed to affect the entire debating activity, including seating, questioning and focus.

• Who should be debate moderators? The choice of debate moderators is critical, as some are more biased than others, avoiding tough questions to their ideological kin, and many disagree regarding the role of moderators — for example, should they just ask questions or should they follow up and pursue inadequate answers? The debate moderators have to be more diverse in expertise and fairness. How could Bernie Sanders continue with his outrageous claim that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” without being cross-examined? How could MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow actually hug her progressive compatriots after an NBC Democratic debate? Expanding questioners to experts in foreign and economic policy and experts who are more politically disinterested would help both the Democratic and Republican debates.

• Eliminate audience cheering and booing — please. Some of the presidential debates have been interrupted consistently by raucous yelling in favor of and opposition to debaters and particular arguments. These audiences are not representative of anything but the accident of who gets in to the debates. They add nothing to substantive exchanges but the random bullying of certain candidates. Is the motive to improve ratings? There is literally no argument for the inclusion of audience control of important political debates.

• Why do pundits and commentators — including this one sometimes — confuse evaluations on the quality of debate participants with predictions of how well they will do in caucuses and primary elections? Many just assume in their writing and comments that “Candidate X clearly won (or lost) the debate tonight and therefore will likely have lost (or gained) momentum.” They were correct regarding Marco Rubio in New Hampshire and have been wrong in virtually every other such prediction. As just one typical example of an assessment, NBC’s John Dickerson opined that voters in South Carolina may change the order of candidate preference since some of them “got good [debate] reviews.” Such an observation is the rule rather than the exception, although some commentators now specifically qualify their judgments on Donald Trump with some variation on the statement that “although nothing seems to hurt Mr. Trump with his supporters.” Political pundits are expert in policy contradictions and utterly without a clue on how debate performances affect public support.

Political debates have limited — but some — value in revealing presidential qualifications. Regardless, they are here to stay, and they can be improved significantly as a valuable addition to the democratic process by conducting and evaluating them more validly.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is the author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion” (Kendall Hunt, 2013).

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