Interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.”—Alan Schroeder

Today’s New York Times has an article on how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are preparing or not preparing for their debate on September 26th. In the following interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, he addresses what makes for a good debater, what’s at stake, and how debates might be improved.

Question: The presidential primary debates of 2015-2016 set viewership records and generated enormous media coverage. How are general election debates different from primary debates?

Alan Schroeder: The key difference is that primary debates are produced by the television news networks, which approach them as vehicles for selling advertising and generating revenue. This became particularly true in the most recent campaign cycle, when the presence of Donald Trump in the Republican debates drew millions of viewers who otherwise would probably have tuned out. These primary debates generated tons of income for CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and various other media outlets. General election debates, on the other hand, are sponsored and produced by an independent debate commission and contain no commercial breaks or advertising messages. Despite their enormous ratings, these blockbuster events fall into the category of public service programming, which means they generate zero profits.

Another difference between primary and general election debates: the number of participants. This past cycle, with nearly 20 candidates on the Republican side, debate producers had to divide the field into two teams—varsity and junior varsity—as a way of bringing the production logistics under control. In a general election, obviously, there are usually only two (sometimes three) contenders sharing the stage, which creates an entirely different rhythm and dynamic. Last but not least, general election debates feature considerably higher stakes and a far higher profile than primary debates. Candidates who stumble in primary debates stand a good chance of recovering; in the big leagues, a poor performance resounds with vastly more damaging consequences.

Q: What makes a good presidential debater?

AS: A fundamental requirement of any good presidential debater is that he or she wants to be up on that stage debating. If we analogize debates to job interviews, then it follows that a candidate must use the 90 minutes at hand to make a positive impression on the folks who do the hiring—the voters. Too often candidates go into debates dreading the experience—Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush in 2004. Seeking protection, these reluctant warriors arm themselves with talking points and one-liners that come across as phony. Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.

Other qualities are also required: advance preparation, command of the issues, projection of authority, an appropriate attitude toward one’s opponent and toward the moderators who ask the questions. All these things matter a great deal, though not as much as that simple desire to be there.

Q: How has the rise of social media changed debates?

AS: Social media have reinvented the way people consume presidential debates. To an increasing degree, especially among the young, debate watching is a dual-screen ritual, with viewers keeping one eye on the debate and one on the reaction. The rise of social media has democratized the viewing experience, allowing the general public to have its say alongside that of professional journalists and pundits. Because reaction on social media can be measured in real time, the power of the people manifests itself more strongly and more immediately than ever.

Social media—especially Twitter—have shifted the debate conversation from a post-event activity to something that occurs while the debate unfolds. It used to be that winners and losers would be declared only after the fact, when pundits and spinners rushed on the air at debate’s end to render their judgments. Today post-debate spin has been largely supplanted by real-time reaction in social media. For the debaters themselves, this means that any misstep at any moment has the potential to instantaneously alter the commentary’s direction and tone. Pressure on presidential debaters has always been enormous, but with social media that pressure becomes even more relentless. After a widely panned first debate in 2012, for instance, Barack Obama spent the next two weeks trying to divert the story line back onto favorable terrain.

Q: Do presidential debates have anything to do with the actual work of being president?

AS: Ever since Kennedy met Nixon, critics have complained that televised debates offer a false test for judging presidential candidates. Debates, according to this view, have more to do with putting on an entertaining show than serving as chief executive. Furthermore, while debates focus on individual performance, in reality presidents must work collaboratively to address domestic and international problems.

Fair though this criticism may be, it misses the mark. Debates may not be a precise predictor of how a candidate will handle the presidency, but they do grant voters a rare opportunity to assess these men and women under intense pressure. For ninety on-camera minutes debaters must demonstrate intellectual and physical stamina, with no help from the usual coterie of handlers and advisers. Because debate rules prohibit the use of notes and props, candidates are forced to think on their feet. This gives the audience a mechanism for judging their thought processes and improvisational skills. Debates also offer voters a preview of how these would-be leaders will communicate with the public once they are in office—a significant part of the presidential job description.

Q: What are some format innovations that might improve presidential debates?

AS: Overly rigid formats stand in the way of freewheeling discussion. When a debate has only two or three participants, there’s little justification for getting hung up on the precise allocation of response times. As long as the candidates are not stonewalling, issues should be discussed as freely as possible and for as long as they need discussing. With that thought in mind, it might be interesting to structure a debate with essentially no rules—just the candidates side by side on a stage, with a moderator standing by to introduce topics and ensure a more or less equal distribution of time. A version of this format has been used in France since the 1960s, with generally positive results.

Other format ideas: debates devoted to a particular topic or theme, such as the “science debate” that has been proposed by a coalition of prominent scientists; debates built around a hypothetical case study; team debates in which candidates are allowed to bring along two or three advisors with whom to consult; and debates in which experts do the questioning—this is something that has been tried in American primary debates. To really get creative, we could look to the Netherlands, where national leaders have debated before audiences of children and teenagers who pose the questions and determine the topics. Just about anything that knocks the candidates off their stump speeches and prepackaged sound bites can be viewed as beneficial to voters. The challenge lies in persuading risk-averse candidates to accept unfamiliar twists on what they already regard as a perilous exercise.

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