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The Real Reason Presidential Debates Have Been So Awful

Republican Candidates Take Part In Debates At Reagan Library In Simi ValleyRepublican Candidates Take Part In Debates At Reagan Library In Simi Valley
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Jeb Bush argue during the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Photograph by Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

American televised presidential debates represent some of the most-watched television in the United States, averaging over 50 million viewers nationally. They’ve been a tradition since 1960 with Richard Nixon and John Kennedy participating in the first televised debate with 66 million viewers. But now that Fox News has decided to cancel Monday’s GOP debate after Donald Trump announced he would not attend, prompting John Kasich to drop out as well, many may wonder what the significance and value debates still hold today.

Despite widespread viewership, the media-orchestrated debates this season have produced noticeable distortions that have upset the public and deterred candidates. For example, Rand Paul boycotted the Republican primary debate in South Carolina after being relegated from the main stage. Democratic candidate Jim Webb ended his campaign after the first two primary debates because of perceived unfairness regarding the debate structure. Additionally, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, was disinvited from the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Nevada after she appeared on television and called for more face-offs.

What’s more, the media has also distorted the actual meaning of a debate. By definition, a debate is held to find a fixed resolution to a problem, argued equally by advocates with opposing viewpoints. This has not been the case in a majority of the Republican primary debates. Donald Trump has had the overwhelming amount of speaking time, regularly garnering more than twice the airtime compared to many of his competitors. Also, traditional debates do not have an “attack rule” that confers extra speech time if a candidate attacks another candidate. This odd feature led the often-neglected candidate Ben Carson to beg his fellow stage debaters to attack him so he might have an opportunity to speak.

These are just a few examples that show how presidential debates have increasingly veered off track, diluting their purpose. But things can be fixed. One way our current debate process could be dramatically improved is by having debate professionals moderate debates rather than journalists. Debate professionals can provide unbiased help when candidates get sidetracked and are much less likely to get personally involved. Experts have suggested that changes like this would improve public attention and the focus on issues. Additionally, candidates should have equal and substantial times to present competing viewpoints, with brief cross-examination periods. Debates need to reflect the topics as selected and designed by the competing campaigns rather than third parties such as the media.


Nonetheless, primary debates are still a major public draw. For the Republicans, viewership has been around 15 million for each debate and as high as 25 million. For Democrats, viewership is lower, but still sizable with 5 to 10 million viewers. But many of us take these debates for granted today, forgetting they are purely voluntary. In fact, despite the popularity of the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, there were no presidential debates in 1964, 1968, or 1976.

Often, incumbents or candidates in the lead may feel they have too much to lose in giving potentially equal time to an opponent.

The public clearly wants these debates as indicated by their viewership. And the candidates see the stakes as high, ironically motivating both participation and evasion. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were arguably damaged by the low profile and limited speech times of the early Democratic primary debate.

On the other hand, the primary debates helped Carly Fiorina move from an obscure campaign position toward prominence, while arguably allowing Trump to run a low-cost campaign where he raised no money from donors. The Republican field has finally narrowed, and current frontrunner Trump obviously sees an advantage in preventing rivals from attacking him during debates, which could be motivating his lack of attendance. Ted Cruz undoubtedly adds to Trump’s incentive to curtail future debates, as he has used many of these opportunities to expose his biggest weakness— policy specifics and political experience. However, when Trump pulled out of the Republican debate before the Iowa caucus, he lost Iowa to Cruz, despite polls originally predicting Trump would win. The future impact debates have on polling results is yet to be determined for the 2016 election, but it’s clearly evident they remain an important feature of American civics that we should continue to improve upon.

Ben Voth is associate professor of corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University.