On Sept. 29, viewers across the country had the unfortunate luck of seeing what many consider to be the worst presidential debate in history. With the constant interruptions from one candidate, to the other throwing insults, to the moderator’s inability to control the situation, there was barely any time to actually discuss policy and the candidates’ plans for the U.S. should either one of them win the election.
When the Vice-Presidential Debate came around on Oct. 7, many wondered whether the vice-presidential nominees would imitate the presidential candidates’ behavior or actually have a proper debate. It was a pleasant surprise when the debate turned out to be pretty civil compared to the one the week before; however, the only downside was that neither candidate rarely answered the moderator’s questions directly. I think it says a lot about the debate that one of the most memorable moments was a fly landing on Vice President Pence’s head. It was a win for women everywhere, though, when Sen. Harris said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” However, the fact of the matter is we haven’t learned anything new about the candidates’ platforms. Maybe it’s time for us to start re-thinking what presidential debates are actually about and how they should be done.
From the first presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the format of these debates underwent several changes before it stuck to what we have now. One thing that remained, however, was that there have always been two candidates on the stage — the only exception being the 1992 presidential debates with Clinton, Bush, and Perot. According to the Commision on Presidential Debates, an organization that sponsors and establishes debate rules, in order to be eligible to participate in the presidential debates, one must exceed at least 15 percent in the polls.
This poses no problem for the Democrats and the Republicans, since they are known to be the major political parties in the U.S., but it does pose a problem to the third-party candidates who rarely get any media coverage and, as such, do not gain that much support in the polls. Former Congressman John Anderson and Ross Perot were perhaps the only presidential candidates who ran as independents, in 1980 and 1992 respectively, to be eligible to participate in the presidential debates. What makes this a problem is that many Americans are pushed to support either the Democratic or Republican nominee without being able to consider candidates from third parties that may be better suited for the presidency if given the chance. As of 2018, about 38 percent of Americans identify as politically independent compared to 31 percent identifying as Democratic and 26 percent identifying as Republican. More and more people are becoming dissuaded and disillusioned by the two main parties. Third-party candidates should have the opportunity to participate in the presidential debates to show the American public what their policies are, giving the voters more options than just Democrat or Republican.
This leads me to my next point: what is the purpose of these presidential debates? Originally, it was meant to allow presidential candidates the opportunity to discuss their stance on important issues, as well as what makes them better suited for the presidency than the other candidates. It also gave undecided voters the opportunity to decide who they will vote for come election day. Now, with modern technology, candidates can easily create a website to share their plans for America if they become president and policies they plan to implement to address important issues.
As for the impact the debate has on undecided voters, in recent years, evidence has shown that debates have not made a huge impact on the outcome of the election. Some voters remain undecided, while others may have been persuaded by one candidate, but the debates themselves have only ever really made minor shifts in polls. So, what is the current purpose of these presidential debates? I believe that the purpose is still the same. These debates allow presidential candidates to clarify and expand on issues and policies they have yet to address, as well as show the public why they would make a better president than their opponent. If done correctly, it can also still significantly change the minds of undecided voters.
The thing is, many see presidential debates as a form of entertainment — I know I do — and it says a lot about what has become of these debates if they are mostly seen as something to entertain us rather than inform us of what kind of people are running for president. After all, we are not choosing ‘America’s Next Top Clown’ — though Biden might certainly think so of President Trump — we are choosing the next president to lead the U.S. and act in our best interests.
What we need to do is consider how to improve our presidential debates so we actually get to hear answers to important questions and not see a grown man throw what could be considered a tantrum. Some may say to do away with debates completely, but that may be a little extreme. Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post mentioned the idea of reducing or eliminating live audiences for the debates so the candidates don’t have to cater to the people present and won’t be confronted with distractions.
However, the latest presidential debate has shown us that reducing the amount of people in the audience — which was due to COVID-19 regulations — will not really improve the debates. Sure, it may stop candidates from pulling stunts like President Trump did in 2016, when he invited four women who accused former President Clinton of sexual abuse to one of the debates he had with then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but it won’t stop them from going way off the rails. While it is a good idea to consider, the candidates will need to make an effort to make it work. Vice-presidential nominees Kamala Harris and Mike Pence seemed to make it work — if you ignored Pence’s interruptions and constantly going over the time limit, as well as both candidates’ ability to avoid answering almost every question.
Maybe we need to think about whether moderators are needed. The moderators are basically there to make sure the candidates don’t go over their time limit and to ask questions about important issues that matter to the American public. However, as we’ve seen with the last presidential and vice-presidential debates, if the candidates do not want to listen to and respect that time limit, then they won’t. A moderator can only remind them and reprimand them so many times before it’s clear that the situation is out of their control due to the candidates’ unwillingness to cooperate. Still, just letting the presidential candidates go off at each other on their own on stage could only invoke chaos.
Taking away the role of moderator won’t make things any different between how the candidates behave, especially towards each other. If the purpose of these presidential debates is to get to know the candidates and their stances on certain issues, then we need to focus on actually getting answers. The issue is, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the moderators choose what questions to ask. They can look at polls to see what questions they should ask, talk to a focus group about what issues are important, or they can completely come up with the questions on their own. This is something that needs to be remedied, in that moderators should be required to ask questions based on what issues are important to the American people that election year.
During the 2016 Presidential Debates, climate change went practically unmentioned even though it was already a growing issue for the country. The questions asked during the debate need to reflect what kind of issues the American public believe the presidential candidates should address, not what the moderator believes should be addressed. Will the questions actually be answered, though? Well, that’s up to the candidates.
We could diminish the size of live audiences, eliminate the role of moderator, or change who actually is in charge of choosing the debate questions, but it still all depends on the candidates’ willingness to cooperate and make it work. The important question to ask — what is the purpose of presidential debates? — isn’t for us to answer; it’s for the candidates to answer. Is it for them to drag the other through the mud, point fingers at one another, try to get a rise out of the other? Or is it to demonstrate their leadership and show the people what they stand for, what they believe in? In that case, we shouldn’t be limited to only being shown two options. We need to have third-party candidates get up on that stage as well to show the American people that they have more choices to consider when it comes to choosing who will lead them. At the end of the day, the presidency isn’t to serve the candidates’ self-interests, it’s to serve us, the people. The presidential debates need to start reflecting that, and so do the presidential candidates.
Feature Photo: Courtesy of CNN