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Bipartisan Panel Proposes Bringing Presidential Debates Into 21st Century

by James Ryan, published

A bipartisan panel released a set of recommendations Wednesday with the goal of overhauling presidential debates during the general election.

The panel, known as the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group, was created by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center and tasked with finding ways to increase the value and viewership of presidential general election debates, taking into account new factors such as early voting, social media and new media, changes in campaign finance, and the rise of independent voters.

The panel's report (a 47-page document that can be found here) may just be suggestions, but the people on the panel itself are what lend it credence. They include Anita Dunn and Beth Myers, who were senior campaign advisers to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (respectively) in 2012 and helped their candidates prepare for debates. The group also features Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg (a Democrat and Republican, respectively), who serve as the lead debate negotiators for their parties.

“Debates are the only time during a campaign when voters get to see the candidates side by side, unfiltered, and improving that opportunity for the candidates and voters is what brought this group together,” said Dunn.

The report covers everything from technological improvements, to broadening the number of potential moderators, to moving the debate schedule earlier to accommodate for the increase in early voting.

In an effort to attract and retain young voters and Hispanic voters, the panel suggests that the debate feed be made free and accessible to everyone, from TV networks to media companies to YouTube commentators.  Under this system, a Spanish-language network could air the debates while providing live translations.

“If we’re trying to get the younger audience to come into the debates in media platforms that they’re comfortable with, then we’ve got to get away from the model that you sit down in your living room and watch a screen, where the debate is branded by a network and the moderator is that network’s celebrity,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, suggesting that making the debates available to everyone would help increase audience engagement.

The report also suggests reconsidering the role of the debate moderator, so as to eliminate "the inherent tension in the role of journalists acting in their capacity of journalists while also performing as moderators."  The panel recommends opening the pool of possible moderators beyond broadcast journalists to include print reporters, university presidents, retired judges, and historians.

Moving debates to earlier in the year, according to the panel, would help account for the increase in early and absentee voting. Following the report's recommendations, the first debate would occur in mid-September, and the rest of the debates would occur within a 19- to 25-day window.

The last reforms would be made to the debate format itself. While town hall debates would be kept the same, others would feature the following:

  • The elimination of live audiences, so as to prevent disruptions that could influence how viewers at home see the debate
  • New debate formats, including one called the "chess clock" model, by which candidates receive 45 minutes to use as they wish, with no single response or rebuttal exceeding three minutes. When a candidate wants to take control of the debate stage, they would simply hit their clock. However, once they have run out of time, they would have no more opportunities to speak

Under this new format, the panel suggests, the candidates -- not the moderator -- would be responsible for asking follow-up questions, and thus would be able to talk about their key issues instead of following a traditional format.

“If you feel the most important thing to voters is jobs, then you can take five minutes to talk about jobs, and if you think something is less important, and you want to spend 30 seconds on that answer, that’s your prerogative,” Myers said. “And that tells voters something about your priorities.”

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