Presidential debates are broken

October 15, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Sixty years is a good run, and the televised presidential debate lived a long and fruitful life. But all things must end, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Or maybe not, perhaps these are the chaotic years where we figure out how to do debates correctly, and we will emerge from 2020 with a better and more informative system in place.

Either way, there will be no presidential debate Thursday night.

Instead, there will be two competing town halls, with former Vice President Biden taking over ABC’s airwaves at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, and President Donald Trump doing the same on NBC. In all likelihood, those who like Biden will watch Biden, and those who prefer Trump will watch Trump. Afterward, there will be some argument about who got the higher ratings, with Trump claiming victory no matter what the outcome. There will be little to no comparing and contrasting on policy between the two.

There was supposed to be a debate in which both candidates participated, but it was shifted to a digital platform after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19. The President rebuffed and said he would only debate in person, so the event was canceled. 

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The debate was nixed just days after vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence went head-to-head for 90 minutes on most major television networks. The winner? A fly.

The fly that briefly landed on Mike Pence’s head got more media attention than either candidate. The fly was mentioned in nearly 18% of all post-debate headlines, according to an analysis by A.I. company CREOpoint. The coronavirus, the next most popular topic discussed, was mentioned in just 5% of headlines.

Flygate occurred less than two weeks after the first presidential debate, which featured a whole lot of name-calling and very little policy discussion, frustrating viewers. 

The events prompt the question: millions of viewers, thousands of tweets, hundreds of hours of prep work, dozens of analysts and spin-room surrogates arguing about who won—and for what? 

What happened last month and what will happen tonight with dueling town halls highlight just how farcical this round of political debates have become. It’s pure entertainment and not much else.

While Harris and Pence were certainly more polite than Trump and Biden during their debate last month, they failed to directly answer a number of questions asked by moderator Susan Page. When asked about President Donald Trump’s diagnosis of COVID-19 and the White House’s response, Pence spoke instead about trusting Americans. When asked about the possibility that she would become President at some point during the next four years, Harris deflected

If candidates prefer to answer questions with tangential preplanned talking points instead of actually debating, then perhaps individual town halls are a better fit.

And even if genuine policy discussion had occurred during the debates, data finds that just 3% of voters are still undecided. A poll taken immediately after Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate found that the majority of Americans said that debate has no effect on their vote. The same was true of the Sept. 29th presidential debate. 

There is also the question of fact-checking, which moderators have said is not their job. Both parties misled or told untruths dozens of times, although data shows that Pence was fact-checked by the media three times as much as Harris. And so the debates have become not just sparring matches or a battle of the tongues, but also superspreader events of false information.

Debates, wrote Hossein Derakhshan, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, “have become entertaining enough to boost ratings,” but, he asked, “do they really help the democratic process?” 

Derakhshan says that debates should still occur, just not on television. “Representative democracy was supposed to rely on informed voters who think. But with television…you can’t think, you can’t make arguments, and you cannot explicate. It’s the realm of emotions and feelings, not reason and thinking,” he said. 

Instead, Derakhshan argues, they should move to radio. Americans, who are now used to receiving information from long-form podcasts (even Trump was interested in a debate moderated by epic podcaster Joe Rogan), would be able to listen to in-depth, policy-oriented arguments with less pageantry and distraction.

While radio may feel preposterously old-school, the history of the televised debate does not stretch that far back. Yes, the history of the television is also a shallow one, but the debate came way after. The first on-camera debate took place 60 years ago, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. And while Nixon was believed to have the upper hand policywise, he did not dress for television or wear makeup, and he appeared underweight and pale. From the outset, the pageantry was there, and Kennedy was declared the winner largely because he looked like the winner. The experience was so jarring that there wasn’t another face-to-face televised debate for 16 years. In 1976 Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter took to the stage once more. There have been televised debates since then.

Even if we stick with the same medium, some say we should change the process. Instead of hosting back-and-forth debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) should focus on one-on-one Q&A-style policy conversations with each candidate, they argue. Like a town hall, but not a dueling one.

During a pandemic it is easy to question the point of in-person debates. Pence, who has so far tested negative for COVID-19 but who attended a superspreader event at the White House late last month, was separated from Harris by just a thin plexiglass divider and 12 feet of space. At the end of the debate he stood maskless on stage with his wife, who also attended the event, potentially putting Harris and the 100 debate attendees at risk. 

Trump pulled out of the second presidential debate because he didn’t want to do it virtually even though he was deemed a public health risk.

“It’s shameful that Donald Trump ducked the only debate in which the voters get to ask the questions—but it’s no surprise,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign aide, of the decision to skip the town hall–style debate. 

But perhaps things are just paused. The commission has not yet canceled the third debate, slated for Oct. 22 in Nashville, and both candidates have agreed to participate.

Following the first presidential debate, the nonprofit corporation, which receives private funding from companies, said it would work to make changes. “Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly,” it said in a statement. The commission has yet to elaborate on what those changes will entail.

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