What he said.

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Debates Aren't Broken, So Don't Fix Them

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Annenberg Public Policy Center is recommending changes to the general-election candidate debates, which, as its report  points out, have had essentially the same format since 1992.

Some of their suggestions -- for example, making the debates easier to follow beyond broadcast and cable news television networks -- seem sensible. Others seem irrelevant (who cares whether there's a live audience?) or pointless (no, it's not possible to force candidates to address the topic or to prevent them from gaming the clock).

All in all, the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group's project represents a lot of wasted effort, and is based on a mistaken premise:

There is no question that debates have a unique capacity to generate interest in the campaign, help voters understand their choices in the upcoming election, forecast governance, and increase the likelihood that voters will cast a vote for the preferred candidate rather than primarily because of opposition to the opponent.

In fact, debate don’t -- and shouldn’t -- do most of those things.

The evidence is that debates don't determine vote choice. But more important: Why should they? There’s no reason to believe that skill in televised debates is correlated with the skills needed to succeed at presidenting.

At any rate, especially in this partisan era, the problem with debates is that they mislead the public by encouraging us to think of presidencies as about personalities. In fact, we elect parties just as much as individuals. More, really.  

Much thinking about debates rests on a related dubious assumption: that voters base their decisions on the “issues.” That is, the ideal voter knows his own views on public policy, and carefully and dispassionately studies each candidate's promises, and then votes for the person offering the closest match. I have no problem with any voter who acts this way (though I suspect such people may not actually exist). But it’s just as legitimate, and probably more sensible, to vote based on primary political group identification -- the party we think will best try to represent whatever group(s) we identify with. Debates have little to do with helping such voters make decisions.

That’s not to say that they are worthless.

Debates are important because of their role in representation, which begins with promises candidates make -- on specific public policies, but also about how they will govern and who they will be if elected. Because debates have become a high-profile portion of the campaign, they’ve become (like campaign kick-offs and party conventions) an important venue for making those promises.

The various specific recommendations Annenberg makes aren't necessarily wrong. But in evaluating them, we should be more concerned about preserving a forum for the candidates than about educating voters who really aren’t interested in the details of most policies. We may need to update debate formats as media and election conditions change, but we certainly don't need to "democratize" them, as the Annenberg group wants. Mostly, the debates perform their function adequately, and there's no reason to treat them as the climax of the campaign. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net