We’ve completed three GOP presidential debates and one Democratic debate. Have any of them truly mattered? Do you feel any more confident that you know and can trust the people on that stage last night? Or the Democrats’ stage last week? Do you think any of these debates have helped voters determine who is the best person to lead the nation for the next four years?
I don’t think most Americans do either.
Campaigns in the past – the distant past – were completely different from those of today. The first presidential candidate who actually went out and campaigned for himself was Stephen Douglas in 1860. William Jennings Bryan made this a hallmark, and by the early 20th century, the old conventions were falling away. Soon candidates were criss-crossing the country, campaigning for themselves. Truman’s whistle-stop tours, Reagan’s rallies – these became the stables of modern campaigning. Television changed the ways campaigns were done, too. Nominating conventions became stage managed beauty pageants, not the public front for the back rooms where deals were cut between candidates and their teams. TV advertising ruled the day for years. A good commercial made a campaign. Primary debates were local things, as Reagan’s “I’m paying for this microphone” in Nashua, New Hampshire, reminded us. Last night’s debate made me long for the old days, where Presidential candidates rarely left their front porches to campaign. A primary debate back then was unheard of.
Today, however, these primary debates are big business for cable news shows desperate for ratings. The first GOP Presidential debate was the most watched non-sports cable show in history. CNN made a mint off their GOP debate, raising their rates for a 30 second spot from a typical $5000 in prime time to over $150,000. CNBC gets something around 131,000 viewers at any given moment on their channel – which means that even if the CNBC GOP debate got 1/3 as many viewers as the first GOP debate (8 million instead of 24 million), CNBC still got a viewership that is more than 800% higher than their usual viewership. As Becky Quick of CNBC told the New York Times, “[t]his is our time.”
Yes, it was. You blew it.
CNBC not only blew it for themselves, they blew it for the entire country. Last night’s debate was a farce – as have been each of the primary debates. The questions asked are coming not from “moderators” in the traditional sense, but coming from media celebrities who care as much about burnishing their own journalism credentials with their colleagues as they do about asking questions that elicit answers that can help viewers make a decision.
Debate moderators used to ask questions of candidates, allow the other candidates to respond, and then move on to the next question and repeat. This doesn’t happen anymore. Instead, the moderators treat the debate like a mini-press conference, peppering each candidate with questions designed to discomfit or embarrass them, and don’t actually add anything to the conversation. Yes, the large number of candidates makes this difficult, but there’s no reason why we can’t find creative ways around the large numbers. Instead, we just allow for a completely worthless format where each candidate is asked a random question that’s specific to them, and whoever can shout down the moderator to respond gets a response.
I don’t care about Marco Rubio’s personal finances. I don’t care about Carly Fiorina’s fights with misogynists on corporate boards. I don’t care about Draft Kings fantasy football regulation. None of those issues help me decide who is the best candidate. Those are the types of questions that were asked. Why? Because they are the kinds of things that these moderators think people want to see. They were pandering to what they thought the crowd wanted to see. Fortunately, the crowd demonstrated that they didn’t like it.
My colleagues blame Reince Priebus for what happened last night. I don’t. Reince himself was unhappy with how things turned out. Others blame the media, and Ted Cruz certainly echoed all of our sentiments last night when he ripped into the moderators – I was hoping the whole stage would walk out. But they won’t, because they want the eyes watching as much as the advertising salesmen at these networks do. It’s great for ratings, great for candidates with no money, but it’s horrible for those of us who want to learn more about candidates and their policies as we evaluate who is the best choice to run for President. The blame belongs on all of us – for not demanding that these debates be taken seriously, and not treated just like another sporting event or afterschool special designed solely around the desire to make money and ratings for their hosts.
This is no way to run a railroad. It’s time that both parties agree to turn over the primary debate process to the Commission on Presidential Debates and allow them to develop methods and debates on the model that works – the one they use for the general election debates. Put them on C-Span, no advertising, no windfalls for TV news. No anchors or superstar celebrity “moderators” who care more about their own brands than helping voters make a good decision. I’m done with this debate system.
No more cattle call debates. No more ratings bonanzas. No more moderator nonsense.
It’s time we did this right.