Round Up: How to Transform Presidential Debates

Could an Oxford-style debate improve presidential debates? Plus, Alabama tries different formats, Wyoming seeks a room for debates (but not for neo-hippies) and more.

presidential debates intelligence squared screenshot

Intelligence Squared U.S. has launched a petition urging the Commission on Presidential Debates to adopt an Oxford-style debate. Watch the video.


Third Parties and the Debate Threshold: Civic Hall’s executive director, Micah Sifry, contributed to The New York Times’ Room for Debate this week, noting that third-party candidates can play a significant role in the presidential election, but access to the debates, and the platform they provide, is key.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, in particular, feeding on dissatisfaction among Republicans with their nominee, could reach the 15-percent threshold (in an average of national polls) that would put him on stage with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. If that happens, Micah argues, “all bets are off on the 2016 election.”

Yet ultimately the impact may be measured by more than votes: “Major parties have always responded to third-party challenges by co-opting their top issues. That’s how smaller parties have managed to change the direction of the country.”

Transforming Presidential Debates: Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe begins his call for reform by reminding readers—through his unearthing of scathing critiques of past presidential debates by the likes of Walter Cronkite—that presidential debates have rarely fostered “meaningful discourse.”

His solution is to compel the Commission on Presidential Debates to adopt the Oxford-style debate model popularized by Intelligence Squared, a non-partisan group that has been holding these type of debates throughout the country. A petition reads, “An Oxford-style debate would force the candidates to respond to intense questions, marshal relevant facts, and expose weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments.”

Dennis Ricci, a Curry College lecturer in politics and history, responds to Jacoby’s commentary by arguing that these reforms will never happen as long as presidential debates are organized by the major parties and broadcast TV outlets, which have a vested interest in keeping them shallow events.

Debates? I Don’t Need Your Stinkin’ Debates: Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell this week floated the idea that Donald Trump might just skip the general election debates that voters have traditionally viewed as “sacred” parts of the electoral process. At a Bloomberg Politics breakfast during the convention, he noted of Trump: “He not only doesn’t put any meat on the bones, I think if you asked him for specifics he couldn’t tell you, and that’s why I think he may duck the debates.”

Debate Fails to Take Flight: It was a surprise when Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, announced this month that it would not host the first presidential debate in September as planned, citing rising projected costs and a $27.7 million budget deficit. Karen Farkas of looks at what happened, from the application to host the debate to the “very difficult decision” to withdraw—pulling from Wright State news releases.
A week before the decision, the Dayton Daily News interviewed university officials at schools that had previously hosted debates. All said it was an expensive proposition, but worth it for the exposure and other benefits.
The debate has been moved to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and three of its wealthy alumni are stepping in to foot most of the $5 million cost, reports Newsday


Alabama: The Chamber of Commerce and a local newspaper in Calhoun County are sponsoring a series of debates for numerous local political positions. Most interesting, the hosts are soliciting questions from audience members and from social media and are trying different debate formats to promote a more responsive, in-depth conversation about community issues.

“Who will move into the White House in 2017 matters, but the same can be said for the candidates for mayor, city council and school board,” said Bob Davis, the Anniston Star’s associate publisher and editor.

Delaware: The final Wilmington mayoral debate sponsored by The News Journal and WHYY was a sold-out affair. A livestream of the debate was broadcast on for those who couldn’t attend. It was the fourth debate involving the seven Democratic candidates; incumbent Dennis Williams declined to take part in any of them. The primary is Sept. 13.

Massachusetts: Republican State Senate candidate James “Chip” Harrington is challenging the incumbent, Democrat Eric Lesser, to a series of nine debates—one in each of district’s nine municipalities. An editorial suggests the proposal is a bit excessive.

But it’s nothing compared to Clay Cope’s proposal. The Republican candidate for the 5th Congressional district race in Connecticut is challenging his Democratic opponent, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, to 41 debates, one in each of the district’s communities.

Montana: The Bozeman Daily Chronicle is calling on candidates for statewide office—particularly incumbents relying on the edge their name recognition gives them—to “set political maneuvering aside” and start scheduling debates.

“[Debates] are particularly important in Montana where it’s relatively inexpensive for special interest groups to saturate the media with negative attack ads that have no real information value to voters and can be egregiously misleading,” reads the editorial. “And with the state’s relatively sparse population, almost anyone who musters a little initiative has a chance to see candidates for important national offices face to face.”

Plus: “Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte have each agreed to three more debates—just not all the same ones,” reports the AP.

Wyoming: The Casper City Council rejected a request to allow political candidates to use the council chambers for debates in an effort to educate the public. The request came from a former council member who noted the chambers offer something no other place in Casper can match: live public television access and an internet connection. The League of Women Voters used to hold candidate forums there until the council halted the practice due to legal concerns about public access.

Former council member Keith Goodenough argued that it could work if access were limited to candidates who filed for public office.

“That would be small enough group that the neo-Nazis and the neo-hippies and all the other groups aren’t going to be clamoring to use the chambers.”