Improving the Quality and Relevance of Presidential Debates

In a 48-page report released in advance of the 2016 election season, an Annenberg Public Policy Center working group has laid out a series of suggestions to improve presidential debates.

The goal? To improve the quality and relevance of the debates, and try to get “more people to watch a debate, to watch more of a debate, to watch more debates, to watch more of more debates,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who organized the group.

Greater than 60 percent of the voting age population watched a presidential debate on TV in 1960. In 2012, the most-viewed presidential debate had just 28 percent of the electorate tuning in.

Data on total viewership for debates from the Commission on Presidential Debates Archive; Total voting age population data from the Federal Election Commission

Sure, 1960 was a different time for the United States, then wedged in a Cold War. There wasn’t an incumbent president. Plus, the debates formed a “road-block” across TV stations—there was nothing else to watch. The event made history, also, as it was the first time the nation saw a televised debate: Richard Nixon sweated it out while John F. Kennedy kept it real cool.

But there’s been a steady decline of interest since, represented by the proportion of the electorate viewing the debates, says Jamieson, who is also the founder and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The current model has to change to keep up with today’s viewers, she says.

“Without change, we don’t think the proportion of viewers will increase,” Jamieson says. “Because which part of the audience is getting larger? The young audience. Which audience is dying off? The audience most comfortable with legacy media. So barring something really unusual, we’re not going to see anything change, unless we switch the model.”

Data on total viewership for debates from the Commission on Presidential Debates Archive; Total voting age population data from the Federal Election Commission

Realizing this, Jamieson assembled a bipartisan group of 16 individuals who worked together to study the debates and come up with recommendations that could plausibly be implemented. The working group, in operation for 18 months, was co-chaired by Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director for President Obama and senior adviser to his campaign, and Beth Myers, senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and campaign manager for his 2008 presidential race. Others in the group include Robert Barnett, Robert Bauer, Joel Benenson, Charles Black, Rick Davis, Ron Klain, Zac Moffatt, Neil Newhouse, Jim Perry, Joe Rospars, Michael Sheehan, Stuart Stevens, and Ben Ginsberg.

“There were a lot of people who I had been in campaigns with and against,” says Ginsberg, a lawyer who has represented candidates and a Penn alumnus who was editor-in-chief of the Daily Pennsylvanian. “That was a terrific mix of perspectives and individuals to bring to the subject of presidential debates.”

Two major suggestions in the working group’s report include encouraging an open feed to all media and eliminating a live audience.

A Report of the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform

Download PDF Report

For one, a debate that isn’t branded by a major network might pave the way for a wider audience across broadcast and digital media, especially if all the camera angles are used to freely feed the content to anyone, for any use.

“The goal there is to increase the likelihood that the people who don’t ordinarily watch the network that’s been branding the debate feel comfortable with the debate,” Jamieson says. “But also so social media can innovate.”

Eliminating the live audience is important, Jamieson says, because “as our research shows, if you have an audience that cheers or jeers or engages in any kind of heckling behavior, you can affect the outcome of the debate—that is, people’s perception at home could be changed.” It might actually swing an election.

Which part of the audience is getting larger? The young audience. Which audience is dying off? The audience most comfortable with legacy media. So barring something really unusual, we’re not going to see anything change, unless we switch the model.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, founder and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center

The biggest issue with these two suggestions is clear: How will the debates be financed? Right now, the debates are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and the sponsoring television network carries the cost of producing each debate. The debates are also hosted at institutions like universities, and funded by donors that expect a spot in the audience.

“If I were a university president, I would step up and say, ‘We’ll finance the debates, no donors in the audience,’” Jamieson says. “But then you’d have to raise the money from donors of the university who would say, ‘I don’t want to be in the audience, this is good for democracy.’”

The group also suggested changing up the moderating structure.

“Right now, reporters are in a very difficult situation, because they’re trying to be traditional reporters and they are trying to moderate a debate,” Jamieson says. “And as a result, we get joint press conferences. We’re not really getting the debate. And if the moderator tries to follow up, the moderator is perceived to be unfair and sometimes the moderator is unfair.”

That’s why the group is also suggesting a switch in accountability to the candidates. Moderators’ roles would be more to solely tee up a topic. One model proposed is a “chess clock,” in which the candidates would have equal amounts of time to use, and freedom in how to use it in addressing topics.

President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter meet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia to debate domestic policy during the first of the three Ford-Carter Debates in 1976.

“So if you as a candidate say something that’s duplicitous, it’s my job as your opponent to point it out,” Jamieson says. “If I disagree with you on something, I don’t need to wait for a question about it, I can take it on directly.”

The group’s suggestions make sure this forum is used to educate everybody as much as possible, without driving viewers away.

Jamieson says she’s concerned about the continuing relevance of the debates.

“We’re concerned about young people, and in particular Hispanics, when no Hispanic network has ever gotten a debate,” Jamieson says. “They come into an environment in which they don’t hear questions that are relevant to them, they don’t see a format that they’re comfortable with, and as a result, they’re more likely to step out of the debate. They’ll be voting without the benefit of the kind of information they can get only from the debates.”

Now it’s up to the Commission on Presidential Debates to take a look at the group’s recommendations, work with the campaigns, and decide which of the changes to implement, if any. Either way, the report lays out a series of alternatives to improve the debates that are there for the taking, Jamieson says.

“We’ve put the report out there with the ideas, and we will all be following from our different positions with different campaigns,” Ginsberg says. “We’ll be watching the political process, while encouraging debates along the lines that we proposed.”

  • Text by Lauren Hertzler
  • Graphs courtesy of Annenberg Public Policy Center
  • Photos courtesy of Getty Images, Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Wikimedia Commons