How Can We Fix Presidential Debates? Ditch The Stopwatch And The Live Audience

“I can’t believe a reality show presence is the new normal for what we want as the leader of the free world.”

By Rhonda FanningJuly 9, 2019 12:33 pm

The first Democratic presidential debates last month each drew 15 million to 18 million viewers. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s nowhere near the 24 million who tuned into the first GOP debate back in August of 2015. But are ratings important? And what did those who did watch last week get out of the experience? 

Angela Evans is dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She wrote an opinion piece for The Hill called “Presidential Debates Should Inform, Not Entertain, the Voters.” Evans compares the Democratic debates to a game show, from the way candidates were placed onstage to the presence of an energetic audience.

“It wasn’t a situation where I felt people had an opportunity to see very serious candidates,” Evans says.

But more troubling to Evans was the lack of substantive questions and the limited amount of time each candidate had to answer. She says viewers weren’t able to judge how candidates would handle important issues, should they win the presidency.

She says time limits and the number of candidates took focus away from the questions being answered. 

“There was this energy onstage of not just listening to what a candidate said, but already deciding what that other person was going to say,” Evans says.

Evans says there are ways the debates could have been more effective, even with the large number of candidates. For one thing, she says they shouldn’t have a live audience. A roundtable discussion format, with five candidates in each group, could have been more effective. In that format, candidates could have been asked “how” they would do something, rather than “what” they would do while in office. 

But a more performative debate style contributed to President Donald Trump’s success during the 2016 presidential race; Trump was a reality TV star before he ran. Evans says debate viewers would benefit from something different.

“I can’t believe a reality show presence is the new normal for what we want as the leader of the free world,” Evans says. 


Written by Shelly Brisbin.