Good Format, Bad Format: A Post by Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates

The following is a post by Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty-Years of High Risk TV. You can also read Alan Schroeder’s other posts on the 2008 debates.

What a difference a format makes. In the first Obama-McCain debate the candidates had two minutes for opening responses, followed by a five-minute discussion period on each topic. In practice, thanks to two verbally confident candidates, these periods ran even longer. Biden and Palin had only ninety seconds for their initial responses and two minutes for discussion, in a debate that ran like clockwork. The outcome: a reasonably substantive level of discourse between the presidential contenders and a superficial lightning round for the v-ps.

Four extra minutes per topic may seem a trifle, but on live television it’s a healthy chunk of time—time enough for smart debaters to flesh out their points and critique their opponents. We saw this with the two presidential candidates, who took full advantage of their opportunity to compare and contrast. Voters benefited from hearing the top-of-the-ticket debaters explain their positions, at least to the degree that live television permits.

By contrast, the Biden-Palin debate whipsawed from topic to topic with the velocity of a game show. On the one hand, this tighter format may have had a salutary effect on Biden by forcing him to whittle down his characteristically expansive answers. But the key result of the bite-sized response times was to keep Palin safely tethered to her talking points. Operating at the mercy of the format, moderator Gwen Ifill did what she could to add depth to the candidates’ views, yet the structure of the program made follow-ups nearly impossible. Ifill’s job was further complicated by this extraordinary declaration by Palin: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you (Biden) want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people.” In other words, silly debate rules don’t apply to me, even though the McCain-Palin campaign negotiated and signed off on those rules.

Debate formats will always be subject to tinkering by campaigns, but for the future let us seek structures for presidential debates that (a) provide greater insight into the candidates’ thinking processes and (b) encourage dialogue and interaction between the participants. And in order to hold debaters’ feet to the fire, let’s give the moderator some powers of enforcement.

Formats ought to serve the interests of the citizens first, and those of the candidates secondarily. The 2008 vice presidential debate got this exactly backwards—while the first presidential debate got it right.

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