Column: Why presidential debates need to change

In this photo taken Oct. 28, 2015, Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Colo. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The CNBC Republican debate on Oct. 28 in Boulder, Colorado displayed the need for a change in the way presidential debates are held in the United States. This event had the Republican National Committee (RNC) complaining of media bias and the Democratic Party arguing that the RNC is making excuses. Those who viewed the debate may have noticed that bias was not its only shortcoming. Many changes should be made to the structure of presidential debates in order to ensure that the public receives a clear image of the strengths, weaknesses and political ideals of each candidate.  

The most visible inadequacy of the debate was the questions posed to the candidates. These questions ranged from unproductive to comical. The opening statement set the tone for the night with a question many people are asked but no one answers honestly: “What is your biggest weakness?” From there, questions were posed involving anything from comic books to fantasy football. These pop culture references were not included in the debates in order to initiate political discussions but to appeal to public interest and portray the debates as less serious than their matter merits.

A question suggested that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio resign from office because of the time he spends campaigning. This question personally attacked him for a practice that politicians from both parties have engaged in during presidential campaigns for decades. This also initiated personal attacks between candidates, which other questions encouraged throughout the night. The motto for the debate was, “Your money, your vote.” The decision to include questions about maturity, pop culture and personal attacks resulted in the moderators neglecting to ask important questions on topics such as involvement in Chinese and European economies.  

There were three main CNBC moderators – Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood – all of whom helped highlight the problem monitors present in presidential debates. These moderators displayed a clear bias throughout the debate through spiteful phrasing of their questions and often including their own opinion of each candidate when doing so. For example, in posing a question to Ben Carson, Quick asserted her belief that his tax plan would not be revenue-neutral under the cover that “some economists” share that opinion. It is not the moderator’s place to display favor to policies. Instead, they should attempt to become unbiased when at the debate. This, however, is not the system of any presidential debates held in the current campaign.

With the current debate system, if the moderator agrees with a statement from one of the candidates on stage, he or she will not refute it, even if it is controversial and needs to be discussed. This practice was reflected in the most recent Democratic debate when U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders stated that the public no longer wants to hear about Clinton’s email scandal. The scandal should have been further discussed, but moderators chose to minimize the subject. Yet, if moderators disagree with statements, like those from the Republican debate often did, they have interrupted candidates and even cut short important explanations.

In an ideal world, moderators would be nonpartisan, but simply posing questions respectfully with the goal of initiating informative political debates should be the main requirement for a successful moderator. 

The inadequate structure of this debate was highlighted by the aggression of the moderators. They emphasized the power of their position by abusing it. The rules of the debate dictate that the moderators can decide who is allowed to comment or rebut and the length of those comments. This means that they are allowed to favor individual candidates and negatively impact the campaigns of the candidates they disapprove. This is allowing the moderators to warp public opinion through their manipulation of the debate. The institution of the presidential debate is founded on the ideal of providing the public with more information about each candidate. Allowing the moderators too much regulatory power is harmful to the public and the voting process.

Currently, the moderators decide who has the right to speak throughout the debate, and the person who speaks the most is often seen as a frontrunner in the campaign. This is negative both due to the moderators’ control over time during a debate and the fact that it means that some candidates cannot address their policies in the same detail as frontrunners. Instead of the current system, it would be beneficial to allot each candidate the same amount of total talking time throughout the debate for which they are allowed to use on the topics that they choose. This would ensure equal exposure of candidates and allow for more discussion between candidates rather than interrogation from the moderators. 

In the coming debates leading up to primaries, it is important that moderators and the public emphasize the importance of promoting equal discussion about important topics instead of allowing bias and personal attacks consume the event.


Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.