How we can reform dull and ill-conceived political debates

Published February 12, 2020

By Tom Campbell

Have you been watching the presidential debates on TV? Falling viewer numbers indicate a growing number of us are tuning out and turning off these slickly produced spectacles that are dull, unhelpful, ill-conceived and poorly executed.
As we plunge into North Carolina’s 2020 election cycle I’ve been thinking about what is wrong with current debate models and what can be done to make them more interesting and informative. I had a chance to test out my theories in moderating a debate of all the Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidates in Kannapolis last weekend. Judging by audience comments they were well received.
Let’s start with the obvious problem that they are structured wrong. I suggest we do away with the tiresome traditional opening statements from each candidate, where each has one or two minutes to introduce themselves and tell why they should be elected. These openers are carefully scripted by and rehearsed with consultants to contain mostly buzzwords and campaign lines but are seldom instructive and waste our time. There are better ways to get to know candidates. How about asking each to share some disappointment, adversity or problem they have encountered, what they did to overcome it and how the experience will benefit them if elected? In Kannapolis, audience members reported they really got to know the candidates after they recounted some of their life experiences.
The next may appear self-serving, coming from someone who does this for a living, but it’s not. Next to the candidates the most important person on stage is the moderator. Note I said the singular moderator because multiple moderators destroy momentum and change any sequential thread of questioning. Sponsors of North Carolina televised debates have felt they needed to bring in nationally known TV personalities and the mere fact they do it confirms that the debates are more show than substance. These big-name moderators don’t know squat about our state, our issues or the candidates. Sponsors should stick with a local moderator who knows the landscape and can control the debate. A good moderator prioritizes debate topics, then carefully scripts questions in advance, understanding that a poorly posed question only gets a poor response.
The moderator is also a traffic cop ensuring each candidate is given roughly equal talking time, but also prohibits participants from not answering their questions. How many times have we seen candidates employ the technique known as a “pivot,” giving carefully rehearsed answers to topics they feel it is to their advantage to answer, but not the question being asked? A good moderator will interrupt and ask the candidate to answer the question asked or move on.
I would further suggest candidates spend more time understanding issues and less time being coached. Most campaigns devote far too much time coaching candidates what not to say or how to avoid making mistakes, all of which prohibits us from really knowing the candidate and their stances. It throws fear into candidates and destroys spontaneity.
And let’s throw out those stupid time clocks. They may have been intended to promote fairness but end up limiting full responses. It’s not how long a candidate is allowed to speak but what they say that matters. Good moderators won’t allow lengthy and off-subject soliloquies.
In summary, we need less structure instead of more, less coaching, better moderators, better questions and candidates who know the issues. Voters can sort out the rest.
The following link will allow you to watch the entire Lt. Governor debate: