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How Presidential Debates Became Unwatchable. An Analysis

I Reviewed An Unholy Amount of Debate Coverage for This

This video and post were inspired - in part - by the following:

Spent a fair amount of time editing this one. Hope you enjoy!

On November 7th, 2023, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled: “From Substance to Shouting: The Demise of Political Debate in America”. The video by Amanda Su is very good and touches on the real devolution of presidential debates. I don’t want this article to be viewed as a critique but more as an addendum or supplement to that video because one rule change is consequential to the tone of televised debates, but it’s part of a much larger shift in partisanship, organizational structures, and the American media landscape. Let’s first take a look at the 2008 rule change.

📝 Context: The Rule Change

In 2008, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) - the nonprofit responsible for organizing presidential debates - changed debate rules to allow candidates to directly respond to one another as opposed to responding directly to a moderator. This loosens the structure of a debate and allows a substantive topic to spiral into a considerably less substantive one rapidly.

A contentious moment during the final 2016 DNC primary debate (The original question was about raising the taxable income limit for Social Security)

What does a moderator even aim at here? (The original question was about a ceasefire in Syria)

The structural vacuum is taken advantage of by individual candidates, but it’s ultimately the organizers’ responsibility to create rules that prevent such chaos.

Instances of “crosstalk” in debate transcripts (see footnote for more detail)

With that said, we need to talk about the Commission on Presidential Debates and how they came to run the debates in the first place. We need to go back to 1988.

🤔 Bipartisanship = Good? LWV vs. CPD

The League of Women Voters (LWV) - a nonpartisan nonprofit group - was responsible for organizing debates in the 1976, 1980, and 1984 general election cycles. From 1988 onward, the Commission on Presidential Debates - a bipartisan nonprofit sponsored by the Democratic and Republican National Conventions - took over. I want to draw attention to nonpartisan vs. bipartisan, a subtle but important distinction. “Bipartisanship” carries with it a value judgement and is thought of broadly as good (or, at least, value neutral). It gives a sense of compromise and consensus. But the major political parties can agree on courses of action that are not in our interest. Making debates another campaign stop is one example of consensus resulting in a worse product.

By the October 1988, LWV controlled debates in consultation with the candidates’ parties. 2 weeks before the first debate in the 1988 general election, the parties together approached LWV demanding complete discretion over: the questioners/moderator, audience composition, hall access for the press, and control over “other issues”.

The League politely rejected the demands saying:

The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

LWV President Nancy M. Neuman, 10/03/1988. Full Press Release

After LWV refused to participate in debate organization, debates no longer sat outside the apparatus of the two-party campaign cycle. The CPD - and the parties by extension - were free to control every aspect of debates including barring third party candidates from participation and rule changes.

We can take a broader view of the debates and the media landscapes in which they exist if we zoom out a bit further though. Let’s look back to debates before either LWV or CPD. Let’s go back to 1858.

🎥 Media Landscape

Debates have changed substantially since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 in terms of their structure:

Blocks of speech from sample of debates from 1858 - 2020. Patterned segments represent periods of heavy interruption / crosstalk

And obviously in terms of the media ecosystems surrounding the debates:

  • In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas debated at a time when information transmission had rapidly accelerated because of the inventions/construction of railroads, phonographs, and telegraphs. Making the debates a media event that boosted the profile of both men

  • In 1948, the first Republican Primary debate was held over the radio so an estimated (roughly estimated) 40-80M Americans tuned in to listen to the men argue over one topic: outlawing the Communist Party in America

  • In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated in the first televised presidential debate

  • In June 2007, the Democratic and Republican primary debates featured social or content networks (namely, YouTube) for the first time

Evolving debate structures are, in part, a function of the news mediums of the time. Today, debates take place in the context of mature, short-form social/content networks where engagement metrics are the most important things. The post-2008 rules in the context of this media ecosystem create the conditions for candidates to simultaneously: (1) project power during the debate by taking up more space and time while giving themselves ample opportunity for a grandstand viral moment and (2) deny their opponents that same space, time, and virality. Interrupting in this paradigm is just good strategy.

As a note and observation: the parties likely had good reason to fear losing America’s collective attention. In the 1992 and 1996 general elections, Ross Perot won 18.9% and 8.4% of the popular vote - a ridiculously good performance by today’s standards and undoubtedly a threat to the major parties’ duopoly over American politics.

The results of the 1992 general election’s popular vote

Meanwhile, the debates in 1996 and 2000 saw a noticeable wane in viewership. And to connect this back to the media landscape, leading cable news(?) programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” had hosts with a more combative stance towards dissenting views; they pulled in massive audiences in 2004. For the CPD, all signs point to turning debates into a spectacle.

Debate viewership (in millions)

Now, we have to look at party evolution. Let’s look at the parties since 2012.

📊 Party Evolution

This is the part where I risk a controversial take, but here goes: The major political parties from 1988 through 2012 were more similar than they were different. The neoliberals and neoconservatives that dominated both parties ultimately occupy the same center-right space on the political spectrum. Because there’s ultimately little choice in their policy platforms, the parties are measured against one another rather than in reference to a broader political spectrum.

But the absorption of policy positions from the 2012 Tea Party movement into mainstream conservative thought and Trump’s introduction into the national political spotlight in 2015, pushed the party in a more paleoconservative direction. That direction change is far more dramatic than the more modest shifts to the left by the Democrats.

The shift away from one another creates a less focused and more hostile feel overall:

Polarity and Subjectivity for all debates from 2000 - 2020 split into pre- and post-2012


The end result of all of these factors - rule changes, organizational adjustments, evolving news mediums, and drifting political parties - is predictable chaos.

I do believe there is appetite amongst Americans to have real substantive debates in an environment that’s made for a 21st century media ecosystem. Debates that:

  • Strictly and fairly enforce rules

  • Confront candidates on factual inaccuracies in real time

  • Live outside the campaign circuit

  • Most importantly, foster substantive conversation on issues that effect a majority of Americans (there are many to choose from)

But until then, if you’re looking for genuine policy discussion, maybe these debates are better left unwatched.

This post was inspired - in part - by:

Footnotes and Sources:

  • The League of Women Voters organized the first debate in 1976 to 1988 (there were no debates between 1960 and 1976). Transcripts for primary debates are available from 1999 onward

  • “Interruptions” include an instance of the debate’s transcription service writing “[crosstalk]” or some variant in the transcript or a candidate’s speaking block ending with a dash followed by the opposing candidate speaking.

  • Subjectivity [0, 1] is a measure of how subjective, that is how influenced a statement is by emotion, opinion, or judgement. A higher number closer to 1 is more influenced by emotion, opinion, judgement

  • Polarity [-1, 1] is a measure of how negative or positive a statement is. A statement that is more negative, that is contains more negative words, has a score closer to -1. In the context of presidential debates, it’s rare to get a debate that is truly “negative” or “positive” in aggregate using traditional models so we judge relative to other debates

  • Paleoconservatism

  • LWV Full Press Release

  • Debate transcripts provided by UCSB’s “The American Presidency Project”

  • All views = my own

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