Party Negotiators Choose Style over Substance for Presidential Debates

As the dust began to settle in the days after the 2012 presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, there was little rest for the political pundits who had spent the past two years analyzing the rollercoaster of potential Republican challengers, electoral vote projections, and issue importance. Instead, the debate immediately turned to who may run in the 2016 presidential election.

However, candidates were not the only issue at hand. Top officials from past presidential campaigns quietly formed a group  to examine major changes in the general election debate format, including moderator selection process, inclusion of new technologies, and the timing of the debates in the election cycle.

It is an important moment for this reflection. These debates were originally designed to help voters make informed choices, encourage candidate to focus on policy issues, and hold elected officials accountable for their promises during the election cycle.

However, as many have witnessed, presidential debates often stray from these original goals.

Many presidential debates are still about image rather than substance. The televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 was largely won by Kennedy based on his youthful appeal on camera as opposed to Nixon’s drab look and profusive sweating from nerves, fatigue, and too much makeup.

Second, presidential debates often devolve into a series of “gotcha” moments that often characterize their aftermath. The 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter is best known for Ford’s slip up in stating that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” despite the Soviet occupation of Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia at the time.

The greatest problem in the debate format still lies with the exclusion of candidates not affiliated with the major parties.
Debbie Sharnak
Similarly, Mitt Romney’s “binder full of women” comment this past year took on a life of its own in the aftermath of the debate, discrediting his likability among female voters.

However, the greatest problem in the debate format still lies with the exclusion of candidates not affiliated with the major parties. As early as 1988, 12 years after television debates became a fixture in the presidential debates, groups such as the League of Women Voters began protesting the exclusion of third party and independent candidates.

The movement gained momentum in 2003 with the formation of organizations that want to change the current format of these debates, such as Open Debates.

In 2012, protests reached a new climax and three debate sponsors withdrew their support due to the exclusion of these candidates: BBH New York, YWCA USA, and Philips Electronics.

The group of party negotiators, however, is more focused on adapting new technologies and reaching voters. While they promise to hold a “session with people who represent the views of non-major parties to discuss third-party and independent candidates,” the focus of the group rests on format and not inclusiveness, despite a dramatic rise in independent voters over the past decade.

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