Debate Format Matters

Howard Owens has a post at the Batavian about last night's debate in NY-26. I only sat through half of that debate, but I agree with his conclusion that voters didn't learn much from it.

In anticipation of tonight's debate in the 29th, let's drill in on one of Howard's points: "to be fair, the format sucked".

After watching the first Presidential debate, and comparing it to the other two, I've come to realize how much format matters. The first Presidential debate was much better than the second (or the Vice-Presidential debate) because it allowed the moderator to ask followups and, most importantly, it let the candidates go at each other during those followups. To accomodate that format, each issue took 5-10 minutes of debate time instead of the usual 4 or 5.

Traditional debates like last night's, which had a one-minute response and a 45-second followup, are much easier to game than the long-answer debate. If a politician can spit out 60 seconds of talking points, followed by 45 more seconds of evasive rebuttal, they can easily turn any "debate" into a series of short speeches. It's much harder to spit out canned bullshit when you have to talk about a topic for 5-10 minutes and answer your opponent repeatedly.

The long-form debate also keeps politicians on topic, since they can answer their opponent's charges directly. This is what really kills the traditional debate. Politicians almost always add a rebuttal of the last question to the next question, which just increases confusion.

National media amplifies the bullshit quotient at traditional debates by looking for a "winner" and fixating on "gaffes". Most media pundits watch debates like hockey fans waiting for a fight, or NASCAR fans waiting for a crash. The longer debate doesn't eliminate this tendency, but the short debate feeds it, because each politician is pressured for time and is more prone to try for cute comebacks rather than real analysis.

I know a lot of people who aren't very interested in politics, yet they take time from their schedules to watch debates. Campaigns put huge effort into them. Yet, the end product of so much effort and expense is almost always a low-information, tedious affair.

I believe local media sincerely wants to do better, but they're already operating at a handicap when then copy the terrible, time-limited, non-debate "debate" format that was pioneered back in the 70's.

Just as folks threw away their Earth Shoes and disco albums, we need to trash the Ford/Carter-style debate and use a lengthier, more meaningful format.


I haven't watched the debate yet but it seems to be getting universally panned.

I agree with you, the "debate" format needs to evolve. The presidential debates are killing me the most, for anyone that watches more than one of them, you quickly realize you've already heard every question. There are thousands of issues that have never been discussed and seven or eight topics we have beaten to death.

Meanwhile there is absolutely no depth to answers, just a media constantly looking for a "gotcha" moment, moderators who seem to know less about the issues than the candidates and no one willing to actually explore policy.

The second Presidential debate was just awful because Brokaw insisted on re-hashing all the questions from the first debate, and the format was worse.

Candidates will always be able to dodge questions - some formats may make it harder, but politicians are great at saying nothing.

I agree with that - but why make it so easy?

I agree with that - but why make it so easy?


What irks me most is that candidates are allowed to glide through with positions that are essentially jokes. In House races, most candidates have absurd positions on the bail-out and in the presidential race, McCain's positions on health care and taxes are patently absurd. I don't see how our democracy can flourish when this is going on.

House races are funny. I had the opportunity this week to talk to both Randy and Eric and Eric kept making the point that he is only one of 435 members. Almost made me think it doesn't matter who we send. :)