May 6, 2024


It’s Time to End Traditional Presidential Debates

By: Donald Kimball

As they have in past election years, five major news networks are banding together to get the two major party presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, to commit to attending televised debates. While the networks say their motivation is to promote democratic values and the respectful clash of ideas, audiences rarely see thought- provoking exchanges or meaningful commentary in modern televised debates. If we want to move past the shallow soundbites of presidential politics, it would be better if both parties declined the networks’ offer.  

In any other election year, holding a formal presidential debate might make sense, but between Joe Biden’s frail physical state and Donald Trump’s massive online viewer numbers after skipping the GOP primary debates, the networks may have cause for concern. The world we live in now is much different than that of 1960, when the first presidential debates were televised. Access to hearing directly from candidates, opportunities to respond to challenges, and individual time and attention to digest complicated ideas have all gone up thanks to modern digital media platforms. No longer are we constrained by the limited television programing of the past, and instantaneous communication makes live political events even more accessible. 

The vast potential our new media landscape offers makes traditional televised debate format seem quaint and out of place. These debates are hyped as major events in the political campaign timeline. The common sentiment is the debates give independents a chance to contrast the policies of the two candidates. But the format rarely encourages that type of enlightening exchange.

Candidates tailor their messages for soundbites and gotcha moments instead of meaningful policy discussion. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of these moments too. Tulsi Gabbard dressing down Kamala Harris for her awful record on civil rights and Chris Christie mocking Marco Rubio for repeating his talking points word for word will always make me smile. When it comes to determining who should occupy the most powerful office in the nation, however, we ought to prioritize serious discussion over entertaining moments.

Broadcast television companies have an incentive to focus on these kinds of moments at the expense of exploring ideas. Every student of media or political science learns how radio listeners of the 1960 presidential debate thought Nixon had bested Kennedy, while TV viewers overwhelmingly handed the win to JFK.  Visually, Nixon’s inferior composure and rough aesthetic (on T.V. his face looked unshaven) worked against him. Rather than trying to downplay these image factors, broadcast networks lean into them, with ostentatious sets, dramatic advertisements, and pointed questions that seek to spark controversy.

Candidates who play image factors well, such as former president Donald Trump, often win over viewers based on style over substance. Regardless of your views of his policies, there is no denying Donald Trump’s longshot bid for the presidency in 2016 was aided by his combative and often humorous bearing during televised debates.

While it may be impossible to mitigate all the superficial aspects of a televised debate, there is still a craving for a more extensive and in-depth exploration of ideas in a long-form format. The success of hours-long online shows like the Joe Rogan Experience, Patrick Bet-David’s Valuetainment, and even Tucker Carlson’s success online highlight the appetite people have to move away from the soundbite media to a more conversational format. This style for presidential debates has precedent: the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858 was formatted with an hour opening statement from one candidate, an hour and a half rebuttal from the other, and a half hour close from the first.

A reasoned debate between presidential candidates, unconstrained by traditional advertisement breaks or network limits, would highlight ideas and clarify views unlike any we will see on a CNN stage. If recent history is any indication, online events like these would far exceed the viewer counts of traditional media. Presidential candidates have negotiating power over the networks like never before. It would be a good use of that newfound leverage if candidates insisted on moving to a format based on serious discussion.

We are embarked on a long campaign year involving two of the least popular presidential candidates in U.S. history. Both are highly unpopular individually, and yet the population seems unable to break away from the current rematch. Perhaps a fresh start toward candidates of substance begins with encouraging our forums of ideas to include time for policy substance. If, however, we continue to rely on the current, outdated sound-bite-based presidential debate model, we’re unlikely to see improvement in the future.