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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Modern Presidential Debates

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Centre College is gearing up for hosting the vice presidential debate in October, and its campus will soon be turned upside-down and inside-out with the preparations for media and security. We've come to take the current tradition of presidential debates as a given, but it may be surprising to know that the idea of two major-party presidential candidates meeting face-to-face on live television is only about fifty years old.

Kennedy and Nixon were the first to formally debate for a national audience in 1960, and Nixon was so jaded by the experience that it was a full sixteen years before another set of candidates, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, agreed to a series of three debates in 1976. Given how recently presidential debates have come to be hallmarks of the modern presidential campaign, it is worth pausing to consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of contemporary presidential debates.

To inform this discussion, I take as my primary sources two excellent books: Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and David S. Birdsell, and Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV by Alan Schroeder. A summary of several of their arguments follow.

First and foremost, presidential debates are educational. In an era when many voters wait until October to start paying attention to the campaign, debates afford candidates the opportunity to provide informative, concise summaries of their major policy positions and viewpoints in a single evening. Research has shown that voters learn from debates. After watching a single debate, viewers are more accurately able to describe the platforms of the candidates and this often prompts them to seek out additional information about the candidates.

Modern presidential debates also provide one of the few indicators as to how the candidates might respond under pressure. Whereas the vast majority of modern campaign events are scripted and edited affairs, debates require candidates to be able to think on their feet and be able to respond to unanticipated events. In this sense, they serve as national "job interviews" for the office. If a candidate gets easily flustered trying to answer a simple question in a debate, it suggests that the candidate may not be able to handle the rigors of the pressure and unpredictability of the presidency. In contrast, when candidates are able to keep their cool during high-stakes events like live debates, it conveys confidence that they'll be prepared when the "3:00 a.m. wake-up call" comes.

Debates also force candidates to do what they should be doing anyways if they want to be president: know something and be able to speak intelligently about a wide range of issues. While the questions from moderators are often predictable, they sometimes throw curve balls that reward the candidates who are better prepared and informed to speak on a wide range of topics.

Despite these advantages, academics and commentators alike have criticized presidential debates, especially for how they're covered by the national media. The vast majority of post-debate coverage and spin from the campaigns focuses on the "horse-race" and how a particular phrase or gesture will ultimately affect the candidates' standing in the polls and electoral prospects. Comparatively little coverage focuses on the candidates' substantive answers to issue and policy questions.

The current format of televised debates has also been criticized. It is now custom that the two candidates will engage in three 90-minute debates -- four-and-a-half hours total. There's a lot that needs to be covered in those four hours! Because so many topics need to be addressed, moderators generally allow for a maximum of 5-6 minutes of discussion on any given issue. This type of format rewards candidates for speaking in overly-simplistic sound-bites and punishes them if for thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the issues. Thus, the advantage often goes to the candidate whose staff can write the best "one-liners."

Along the same lines, it is often assumed that a candidate who can debate effectively will also be able to govern effectively. A moment's reflection should reveal the flaws in that line of thinking. Whereas debates are won by those who are better with memorable "zingers," presidential governing requires, as Schroeder writes, "time, improvisation, and compromise with opponents." Jamieson and Birdsell further elaborate that debates "reward some behaviors undesirable in a president" and hold that the current debate format "fails to elicit or provide a means of evaluating some of the skills central to conduct in office including an ability to ask significant questions, a talent for securing sound advice, a disposition to act judiciously, and a capacity to compromise without violating conscience or basic social principles."

Perhaps most ironically, Jamieson and Birdsell explain that presidential debates aren't really "debates" in the traditional sense of the word. The current moderator-focused format discourages candidates from engaging each other meaningfully, and instead allows them to focus their answers on the moderator and the wider public. Thus, modern debates are more like "joint press conferences" than actual "debates."

In sum, there are several advantages of modern presidential debates: they inform the public about major policy issues, they give voters a glimpse of how the candidates might respond under pressure, and they keep the candidates honest. However, modern debates also serve to exacerbate our sound-bite political culture and they aren't able to provide an entirely comprehensive means of evaluating the candidates' fitness for the office of the presidency. Ultimately, sophisticated voters should certainly take debates into consideration when making their choice, but they should have a healthy awareness of that which debates can -- and cannot -- ultimately accomplish.