Mark McKinnon: Presidential Primary Debate Process Has Gone Rogue

Two debates in a 12-hour span? The process is out of control and must be reformed, says Mark McKinnon.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The following is excerpted from a just-published Harvard University research study from The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, written by Mark McKinnon, a Shorenstein Center Reidy Fellow, Fall 2011.

Presidential primary debates are an important part of our political process. But the media has wrested complete control from the parties and candidates over everything, including the number, the format, the qualifications, and the moderators. And they’ve become a circus. Of the 30 debates once scheduled, 20 have been held so far, including two over the weekend within 12 hours. As a result, the focus of today’s primary debates emphasizes entertainment and eyeballs. It’s all about network branding, talent promotion, and ratings, not a better democratic process.

The process of electing the next president of the United States is not a joke. Does the current primary debate process best serve voters, the candidates, the parties, and the nation? Or is there a better way?

While external events—over which presidential candidates have little control—often have an impact on election outcomes, campaigns have four opportunities to affect public opinion substantially and move poll numbers:

1. The announcement and rollout of the candidacy2. The convention nomination speech3. The selection of a vice president4. The debates

Candidates have complete control over their announcements, convention speeches, and choice of vice president. And they certainly have control over and responsibility for the quality of their debate performances. But, as evidenced by the 2012 Republican primary process, control of the debates has been lost. The sponsoring networks, media, and third-party groups have wrested away control from the candidates and the national parties. The debates no longer showcase the candidates’ strengths or encourage dialogue on the substantive issues most important to primary voters.

Creating reality-TV conflicts, seeking unrealistic 60-second solutions to unrest in the Middle East, and allowing only 30-second sound-bite rebuttals may drive better ratings but not a better democratic process. Candidates, campaign managers, party officials, members of the media, and voters at large have expressed increasing frustration and a clear desire to reform the primary debate process before the next presidential contest in 2016.

The four central criticisms of the current debates “gone rogue” are the frequency, format, selection criteria, and content.

Frequency. A campaign’s most limited resource is the candidate’s time. Consider then the impact of 30—or more—primary debates on a campaign that must:

1. Facilitate the debate requests2. Schedule the debate3. Negotiate the details of the debate4. Prepare the candidate5. Block off at least three days on the campaign calendar for the debate

With the candidates spending more time dealing with debate-related logistics, they have less time to talk directly to voters on the campaign trail.

Format. Perhaps the only theatrical element missing from some of the highly staged debates this year: a ring announcer. Moderators became the story, questions were designed to spur conflict, buzzers limited answers to 60 seconds, and candidates were constrained to one-liners. But the most damaging reality of the 2012 debates: serious candidates are not taken seriously. In a Catch-22, frontrunners are favored with more time on camera at the debates than those deemed second- or third-tier, thereby further strengthening their frontrunner status. And the disparity in times only fuels suspicion of the media picking winners and losers, rather than the voters.

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Selection criteria. The selection criteria for the debates have been constant only in the candidates excluded. Charles “Buddy” Roemer, former governor of Louisiana and a 2012 Republican candidate for president, was not allowed in a single debate. Meanwhile, Herman Cain, a fast-food executive was invited to participate in every debate until he suspended his campaign. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson also was routinely excluded, though he did pass a 1 percent polling threshold and participated in two debates. (Why is it that Johnson could meet a 1 percent threshold but not Roemer, though they shared similar backgrounds? A national random-sample poll was conducted with the first and last names switched. “Gary” Roemer received 2 percent of the vote, theoretically qualifying him for most of the early debates. And “Buddy” Johnson received zero votes, suggesting the real problem for Roemer in qualifying for the debates may simply have been the name “Buddy”—a nickname voters may find unpresidential.)

While difficult to prove, all three excluded GOP candidates—Roemer, Johnson, and Fred Karger—make claims of institutional discrimination. Though various poll standings were used to determine participants, not all candidates were included in the polls. And given the insignificant difference between a 1 percent or 2 percent polling number, particularly early in the primary calendar, it is easy to question the entire system upon which the criteria for entering into primary debates has been constructed.

Content. The unemployment rate ticked up to 9.1 percent, Europe’s financial crisis worsened, and Iran talked of testing a nuclear bomb, but the candidates for president of the United States were asked “Dancing With the Stars or American Idol? Spicy or mild? Elvis or Johnny Cash?” Ideally, debate questions should be timely, relevant, and thought provoking. They should be focused on substantive issues and should test the breadth and depth of each candidate’s knowledge. Not all questions asked at the debates met that standard. And the questions asked—as well as those not asked—often revealed the bias of the moderators and panels.

Even before Reince Priebus arrived as chairman of the Republican National Committee in January 2011, eight debates had already been scheduled. The previous RNC chairman, Michael Steele, had told the networks the RNC would not play a role. Without the advantage of early leverage, and under the unique circumstances of this particular election and field of candidates, there wasn’t much Priebus, or anyone, could do to control who sponsored debates and who accepted them. There was no mechanism to stop a media entity looking to brand its network from proposing events, and nothing to discourage candidates seeking attention from jumping at the opportunity.

Debates gone rogue is the exact sort of impetus that led to the creation some 20 years ago of the nonpartisan, general election Presidential Commission on Debates. Perhaps something like that commission should be considered for the primary debates. Perhaps something less formal. Or something altogether different. But something different from what we have today or are likely to have in 2016 unless steps are taken.

In terms of conveying important information voters deserve to know about the candidates, debates are the most vital feature of presidential politics. And therefore, all of the issues surrounding primary debates should not be left to random, casual, uncoordinated, and chaotic circumstances, as they are today.

To bind candidates to a protocol, a mutually beneficial agreement has to be reached between the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee well ahead of anyone announcing their candidacy for 2016. Any agreement should establish:

1. Criteria for candidate participation2. Length and format of debates3. Number of debates that should be sanctioned and when they should be scheduled4. Ideal number of candidates per debate (and strategies to accommodate)5. Criteria for sponsorship and partnership6. Guarantee of equal time and number of questions7. Appropriate venues 8. Methods for determining podium or seating order

As a first step, the Institute of Politics and The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University have agreed to sponsor and facilitate a discussion beginning with a closed-door, off-the-record session in May or June 2012 with key players from the RNC and DNC, as well as representatives from the Republican campaigns of 2012, and the 2008 campaigns of President Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The 2012 presidential primary debates went rogue. With some serious review, discussion, and deliberation, the primary debates for the 2016 election can be both entertaining and informative, and better serve voters, the candidates, the parties and, yes, even the media.