The Case for Ending Presidential Primary Debates

 /  Nov. 24, 2019, 6:39 p.m.


White House, Pete Souza

If there is a platform in national politics that should educate voters about presidential candidates, it is the presidential primary debates. These intra-party debates, often comprised of five or more candidates, are meant to allow voters to see presidential candidates go head-to-head on critical political and policy issues. These debates ideally should help voters learn more about specific policy options and decide how they want to allocate their political support, whether in the form of words, donations, or votes.

Prominent political figures tend to voice these sorts of explanations for the debates and their supposed importance to the political process. In June, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez noted that the primary debates are “an opportunity to see our candidates engage on a range of issues that matter to the American people and that the next president will have to tackle.” He makes the case that the debates are a forum for productive discourse between candidates on substantive policy ideas, and that the debates can be insightful for voters to see how candidates relate to and diverge from one another.

Unfortunately, Perez’s justifications are incongruent with reality. The primary debates offer voters next to nothing as far as true insight into candidates’ positions. Whether it is due to the profit-motivated tactics of mainstream media, the repetition of poorly articulated questions, or the tendency to facilitate exploitation of the public by unqualified candidates, the debates fail to do the one thing they should aim to accomplish: educate voters to help them make informed choices. Primary debates need to be replaced by more creative forms of political media, like long-form interviews, town halls, and digital mediums, which can streamline political learning and better empower voters.

It is in the best interests of the networks that host the debates to make them into political spectacles that attract as much public attention as possible, rather than enlightening and productive conversations. The primary debates are a way for major networks to generate revenue—for example, by playing advertisements during the telecast and by licensing the rights to use footage post-debate. This summer, it was reported that CNN was searching for $300,000 commitments for advertisements during the debates, with individual thirty-second spots previously going for $100,000. The more networks can increase theatrics for the sake of higher ratings, the more ad dollars they can net as profit, even if it means having less meaningful arguments on policy and more disjointed diatribes.

Repetition is another issue. Every single debate rearticulates the same archetypal dichotomies: progressive versus moderate, establishment politician versus outsider, and radical changes versus gradual shifts. After the first round of primary debates in a given presidential cycle, one would be hard-pressed to find any significant, relevant topics covered in the ensuing debates that voters have not heard the candidates discuss already. Often, the first twenty to thirty minutes of a debate devolves into Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren restating his or her opinion on Medicare for all, and then Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and other centrists rehashing why they prefer single-payer. Voters are left with no new information, and there is less debate time left for different topics to be covered, like criminal justice reform and gun control—each of which have received less than an hour of talk time across the four debate rounds.

The debates also feature poorly chosen questions, making for a terrible combination in conjunction with their constant repetition. Moderators ask tangential and scattershot questions to provide moments of attractive content that play well for their respective networks. Take, for instance, the final question in the fourth debate of the 2020 cycle on October 15. Rather than talk about pressing issues like climate change, voting rights, or immigration, the moderators referenced the recent Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush photo controversy and asked the candidates about a surprising friendship they have. Questions like these have no bearing on pressing issues in the United States, and they raise questions about the quality of the moderators—specifically whether or not they are willing to help undecided voters educate themselves about their options.

The anomaly that exemplifies the consequences of these debates’ flaws is, unfortunately, the president. Then-candidate Donald Trump boosted the 2016 Republican primary debates to their highest viewership numbers ever. The first primary debate in 2016 was the most-viewed non-sports cable television event, and the first Trump-Clinton debate drew the most debate viewers ever at 84 million. Trump took advantage of the debates’ poor construction, and people flocked to watch him do so. From joking about Rosie O’Donnell’s appearance to lambasting current immigration issues, Trump was able to not only avoid having to offer substantive, thoughtful policy proposals, but also reiterate racist and sexist tropes without consequence. 

A candidate like Trump who lacks real policy focus can exploit these opportune moments in the national spotlight to attack other candidates on an ad hominem basis and “win” a debate without enhancing viewers’ knowledge or understanding. Trump’s abhorrent behavior constituted spectacles on the debate stage, and he developed a strategy predicated on extremism and unbelievability that the primary debates helped fuel. Had the debates actually functioned as events where arguments on how to lead America and implement effective policies were the priority, Trump would not have been able to invigorate his campaign with such outlandish statements and outperform more qualified and sophisticated Republican candidates. 

Unlike the primaries, though, the general election does warrant debates. Although the general election debates may suffer from these same shortcomings concerning the prioritization of virality and the lack of substantive policy discussion, they are often about conveying two starkly different visions for America. They are inherently more intimate because they feature just two candidates, usually in clear ideological opposition to one another. Primary debates are more muddled and unfocused by comparison, in large part due to the number of candidates. Having such a platform like debates for the general election, however imperfect, is important to flesh out the personalities and positions of the two remaining presidential candidates.

The presidential primary debates, on the other hand, can be replaced by more effective forums for political dialogue (which can be used in the general election too). In the digital age, the debates are no longer the only avenue for voters to learn more about candidates. In town halls, voters can ask candidates directly about issues that they care about, and candidates have opportunities to elaborate further in a non-timed fashion. Recent town halls like CNN’s on climate change and LGBTQ rights benefit voters and candidates by enabling legitimate political dialogue between the two. Platforms like town halls, wherein voters are exposed to nuanced and natural discussions with candidates, are better suited to the democratic process than the current primary debate system. They can empower voters to choose the issues discussed, putting the pressure on candidates to speak on what their future constituents deem important.

Long-form interviews also give candidates the opportunity to dive into their policies and core beliefs. With one in three Americans now listening to at least one podcast a month, candidates can take advantage of emerging digital political communication mediums. Sanders’ interview with Joe Rogan has surpassed ten million views on YouTube alone, reaching higher numbers than the debates. Whereas Bernie spoke for just thirteen minutes in the October primary debate, the Rogan interview went on for an hour, giving Sanders just as much time in one interview to share his ideas as he was able to speak in all of the debates combined (at the time of writing). These interviews can also accommodate short attention spans, as they can be edited into smaller clips. Thanks to such flexibility, podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience, Pod Save America, and others are more conducive to educating voters than nearly any debate on CNN or NBC.

Some may make the case that even if these formats are utilized more often, mainstream news networks will still retain significant control over the types of questions asked and the degree to which candidates are challenged on difficult campaign points. However, when contrasted with how poorly the primary debates function, any opportunity for direct communication and dialogue between citizens and candidates will at least provide a better option. The primary debate platform itself is currently not conducive to substantive policy debates, and changing that will have an immediate impact—even if mainstream media retains organizational and administrative capacities.

Abolishing the primary debates is ultimately about educating voters on candidates’ positions more effectively and productively. Through more intimate platforms, the American people can better their understanding of not only who they want to vote for, but more importantly, their own political beliefs. Much of new political media today is designed to share information on issues, and those formats are far more effective than the existing debate structure. More people would be willing to tune in and hear from candidates if the mediums through which political dialogue is made public were to prioritize the dissemination of information, the promotion of meaningful debate, and the political empowerment of the electorate.

The image featured with this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Pete Souza (White House) and can be found here.

Noah Tesfaye


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